Sermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, Memorial Church of Harvard University, May 17, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Will you pray with me? May the words in my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight oh God, our rock and redeemer. Amen
Friends, is there such a thing as a good goodbye or a farewell done well? Partings are tough. There's no way around it. Often we stumble through them or dodge them all together. Some of us may try the avoidance tactic. We pretend that it's not happening, perhaps saying to ourselves, "Well, I don't know what to say. Where do I even begin?" And then the parting thereby goes unacknowledged either with our words or in our hearts.
Some of us may try to escape the finality of goodbyes by making false promises such as, "I'm sure we'll stay in touch. We'll see each other again." Yet in our heart of hearts, we know that none of this might be true and we say it anyway. And sometimes we can be so uncomfortable with saying goodbye that we redirect our emotions and divert our attention by getting angry or picking a fight or withdrawing entirely.
It's easier to create an excuse than address our underlying grief. And yet, even if we do find the right words, that can be difficult too because once our parting is acknowledged, our separation can no longer be ignored. In the moments of our parting, we encounter not just the limitations of relationship, but also the limitations of our humanity. We cannot be both here and there. We cannot stop time. We cannot be with all the people we care about. This is a fact that we've all learned too well during this quarantine.
In the Bible, however, many of the partings are tender and lingered over. They are marked with an unwavering honesty and without a trace of denial. Our gospel lesson from John for today, read so beautifully by Alex Grayson, is located in the middle of what is commonly called the farewell discourse. Jesus does not slip away in the middle of the night. After the Last Supper, Jesus dwells in the moment with his disciples, after they have finished their meal and he has washed their feet. Judas has gone and Jesus knows what this means. Others do not. So this is the last opportunity to say what he needs to say. And so the final third of John's Gospel is Jesus saying goodbye to his beloved disciples.
True, you might say, goodbyes might be difficult and Jesus prioritizes saying farewell when he parts with his disciples. But what relevance does that have for us today? What happens when you can't say goodbye at all? There is a different kind of grief and pain when the opportunity to say goodbye is taken away altogether. Students will not have the chance to celebrate their commencement with their family and friends. Family members have been unable to say goodbye to their dying loved ones. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers are living away from their own families. For the fear of infecting them. Business and restaurant owners are closing up shop and not knowing if they'll ever see their customers again. And people are packing up their offices to work from home without knowing when they'll be able to return, if ever.
So how do we part without the familiar rituals of saying goodbye? Oh friends, this is tough.
Returning to our gospel lesson for the day, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not leave them orphaned, abandoned, or alone. Instead, he'll send them a Paraclete. Here is the first time that Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete. Now, what is a Paraclete you might ask? In ancient Greek, “parakletos,” has several overlapping meanings. It can be translated as comforter, advocate, counselor, helper, mediator, even broker. At its most basic meaning, it means the one to come alongside. Jesus tells us that saying goodbye is not the same as ending. "I may no longer be physically there. Yet, I leave you the Holy Spirit to come alongside you, to accompany you, to bear witness to your lives. In life and in death, you are not alone."
What does it mean for the Holy Spirit to come alongside?
Well, as the diverse translations of Paraclete indicate, it depends on the context. Like we cannot quantify God's magnitude or set parameters on Christ's love. We cannot limit the creativity of the Holy Spirit activity in our lives. In some instances, the Holy Spirit can come alongside us to bring consolation, comfort, or encouragement.
A surprise blessing for me in the midst of this tragic pandemic has been the opportunity to worship alongside our far-flung congregation. And my family has stumbled into a new ritual on Sunday mornings. My son, who is almost two cannot expend his abundant energy at playgrounds. So we've had to be inventive about finding alternative, safe, outdoor places where we can bring him to play. My mother-in-law suggested a cemetery could be such a place and it happens that we live near one. So each Sunday, we bring Henry to a cemetery at the top of a large hill that overlooks the Green Mountains of Vermont and it has become his favorite place. The gravestones are just the right height for him to hide behind, and there are plenty of pine cones for him to pick up and examine.
And there is something hauntingly reassuring about watching this little boy dance among the tombstones of those long deceased, while I listen to the choir sing transcendent music, alongside You. Although we are physically alone on that hill, somehow the Holy Spirit makes me feel so connected with the past, future, and present, all in the same moment. This ritual helps anchor me when I so often feel cast at sea during this disorienting time. It is an unexpected way in which the Spirit has come alongside me.
In other instances, the Holy Spirit as Paraclete can be translated as the one who advocates for you. The Gospel of John was written in an age of empire and opposed domination. The ministry and life of Jesus offers a striking claim against the order of the day. It was not about blame or shame or instilling fear or demanding silence. It was not about the preservation of self or holding others captive. His life and ministry challenged the assumption that power came from control over others.
Jesus embodied the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, speaking and acting towards others with tenderness and mercy. And the love which Jesus embodied was about caregiving. It was also about accountability and justice for he also turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple, and he fiercely protested against those who shortchanged the value of each life.
So when Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit in our passage today, he says, "I will ask the Father and he will give you another advocate to be with you forever." Another advocate implying that Jesus is the first and the Holy Spirit is the second. The Holy Spirit follows the lead of Jesus. Therefore, the activity of the Holy Spirit derives itself from the example of Jesus' life and ministry.
A wise person once said of the Spirit of God is the one who comes up through us. And in this way, we become the channel through which the Holy Spirit advocates and mediates for those who are neglected, isolated, forgotten, or disregarded.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes how an ancient culture in Northern Africa used to celebrate when they witnessed God during a ceremonial ritual. There would be a moment when a dancer became lit from within. The crowd would catch a glimpse of the Holy shining through and they would shout, "Allah, Allah, Allah. God, God, God." And when the Moors brought this ritual to Spain, Allah, Allah, Allah evolved into Olé, Olé, Olé, which is still shouted at bull fights and flamingo dances. The shouting of Allah, Allah, Allah is a recognition that God's Spirit is not just the inspiration for the dance, but God is the dance. The dancer is a channel through which the spirit performs
Preacher and professor, Karoline Lewis, shares that, "Accompaniment is not simply having someone beside you. Accompaniment means active and assertive abiding. An abiding that enters into places of fear and discomfort, uncertainty and troubled hearts and speaks truth freely." The notion of accompaniment here is creative and energetic. It reminds me of the accompanist who used to play the piano during my childhood ballet classes. She would set the tempo to which we all danced. What if the Holy Spirit accompanies us with music through life so that we can dance the dance?
It's easy to imagine Jesus being devastated about leaving his friends. That is probably one reason he lingered over the goodbyes. He did not like goodbyes any more than we do. And I also imagine that he was comforted by the understanding that he would not be leaving them alone. Even when Jesus could not be at their side, there is another who would come to their side to comfort, advocate, and accompany as he had. The Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Jesus would go to his beloved ones and draw them close at their point of greatest need. Friends, the good news is that this same Spirit comes alongside us as well, at a time when we cannot be with one another, which is to say at a time when we may need the Spirit the most. Amen.