No Orphans Here
Text: John 14:15-21
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, on 5-21-2017)
Do you love Jesus?
Do you love Jesus?
Do you love Jesus?
Allow me time here to apologize to my Seminary professors who taught me never to begin a sermon with a question. Let me also apologize to you, members and guests who are worshiping in this historic sanctuary this morning. I know it is not polite for well-educated, urbane, sophisticated people to be asked such a simple question.
And, yes, I know it is really not such a simple question. You and I could spend months, years, debating whether we love Jesus and how to know when you love Jesus the way we are supposed to love him. Half the time we are not even sure whether or how we love the people living in the same house with us. How can we be sure that we love Jesus? So, with all these apologies and qualifiers in place, I will ask you again: Do you love Jesus?
The fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is a winding trail circling around the question that I just asked you multiple times. John does not wait for an answer. He both asks and then answers what it means for anyone to love Jesus.
Jesus tells his road companions that his time with them on this good earth is almost over and then says, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” Jesus does not command warm feelings for him. Feelings are beyond even Jesus’ ability to command, but the love that John writes about in his Gospel, the love Jesus asks of us for him and for the world is not about feelings; it is about concentrated wills, willing the best of God’s gracious purpose for friend and also foe.
To his credit, Jesus left his friends with more than a question and more than a farewell announcement and command. He left them with a farewell promise. Before panic could set in, Jesus promised that though leaving them, he would not abandon them. He promised to send them a Paraclete, a Comforter, an Advocate, a Helper. However we translate the Greek term, Jesus says to his flawed but beloved followers, “There will be no orphans here.”
Jesus promises his living abiding presence to his best friends. His promised will stir them to love the creation Jesus loved, to love the people Jesus loved, to love until there is no room left for anything else but love, even in the darkness.
I am amazed at how many Christians who claim to love Jesus and yet consider his command to love as optional equipment for the Christian life, to be exercised when convenient. They excuse their hatred for people and nations as righteously provoked by hateful people or hateful countries or hateful terrorists. They excuse their greed as sanctioned by Jesus who wants the faithful to have more than anyone else, as if Jesus would sanction that another suffer in order to sate our greed. They suggest that loving Jesus means minding our spiritual p’s and q’s, acting as if there is only one way to think about God, forgetting that we always have more to learn about God than what we now know.
The late Roman Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen tells the story of a young fugitive trying to hide himself from the enemy in a small village. “The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn.
“The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words, ‘It is better that one man dies than the whole people be lost’.
“Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room.
“That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy’. Then the angel said: ‘But don’t you know that you handed over the Messiah’? ‘How could I know’? the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known’.”
If you and I love Jesus, we will read our Bibles to learn the story of the faith that names us and claims us. We will gather to worship here Sunday after Sunday because you and I were wired to give praise. We will give generously to the ministry of the church because we know that all that we have and all that we are is on sacred loan from God. We will center our lives in prayer because we need to hear a voice of clarity above the din of madness.
But if you and I are to love Jesus in the way that Jesus asks for us to love him then we will do far more. We will look into the eyes of those that our world leaves orphaned. When we do, we will discover something new about them and something new about us.
Having grown up in solid white suburbia, I never understood why so many people live in such substandard conditions in the U.S. Then, years ago, I started hanging out with Habitat for Humanity and meeting those that our society has orphaned to substandard housing or no housing at all. I soon found out that no person likes to live in a house that leaks or has no insulation or has holes in the floor large enough to eat a cat or welcome a rat.
When I looked in the eyes of those orphans sweating with us to build their Habitat House, I knew that I could not love Jesus and bask in my isolated spiritual haven content to let decent and affordable housing be a worry for someone else.
When I spent my first night in a shelter for those without a home, I knew that I could not love Jesus and be content that in this land of rich and plenty that grown men, women and children, each one created in the image of God, each one our brothers and sisters in Christ, have no other shelter than the one offered on gym floors and church fellowship halls. Just as Jesus promises not to leave his followers orphaned, so you and I are commanded to pray and worship and work for the day when there are no orphans here.
In one of her essays, the somewhat mouthy, Presbyterian elder, former anti-church, now Presbyterian elder, Anne Lamott recounts going to the grocery store on her birthday, feeling the weight of the world’s need and hunger and our nation’s overwhelming affluence. She makes it through her shopping ordeal only to have the clerk tell her that she has won a ham.
The problem is that she does not like ham, has no need for ham, and in her fluster about this unwelcome gift she ends up crashing her ham-laden grocery cart into a slow-moving car in the parking lot.
“I started to apologize,” writes Anne, “when I noticed that the car was a rusty wreck, and that an old friend was at the wheel. We got sober together a long time ago, and each of us had a son at the same time. . . .
“She opened her window, ‘Hey’, I said, ‘How are you – it’s my birthday!’
“’Happy Birthday’, she said, and started crying. She looked drained and pinched, and after a moment, she pointed to her gas gauge. ‘I don’t have money for gas, or food. I’ve never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I’m asking you to help me’.
“’I’ve got money,’ I said.
“’No, no, I just need gas,’ she said, ‘I’ve never asked anyone for a handout’.
“’It’s not a handout,’ I told her. ‘It’s my birthday present.’ I thrust a bunch of money into her hand, everything I had. Then I reached into my shopping cart and held out the ham to her like a clown offering flowers. ‘Hey!’ I said, ‘Do you and your kids like ham?’
“’We love it’, she said. ‘We love it for every meal’.
“She put it in the seat beside her, firmly, lovingly, as if she were about to strap it in. And she cried some more” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, pp. 10-11).
Do you love Jesus?
Then look in the eyes of those people sitting next to you in the pew this morning. Some are worried sick about money or their job or their health or their children or you name it. Look in the eyes of those you hit with grocery carts in parking lots or stumble into at a soccer game or stand next to in the grocery store, of those on the streets listening to music so loud that it makes your head swell. Look into their eyes. Listen to their stories. Do not try to dazzle them with your piety. Simply assure them that for the love of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, there are no orphans here.
To love Jesus that way means that we will give away something that we have needed to give away in the first place. We may even give away a birthday ham to someone who actually wants it, to someone who actually needs it. No telling what loving Jesus might lead us to do. No telling what kind of company we might keep if we get serious about loving Jesus.
So, while you are still thinking through my opening question about loving Jesus, fast forward to the end of John’s Gospel. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks this of Peter – this arrogant, impetuous, disappointing, denying, disciple. Three times he asks the same question of Peter and finally Peter says, “Enough already, you must know that I love you.” Jesus looks Peter in the eyes and says, “Then love others in just the way I have loved you.”
Now, fast forward with me to this morning and I will ask the same opening question for one last time: Do you love Jesus?
Wouldn’t you hate for this sermon to end with a question?