Sermons

PastorEric-2Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

Some colleges have a “Last Lecture” series in which professors are asked to share what they would say to their students and others, if they knew it was their last chance to speak. You may not remember Randy Pausch by name, but many of you may remember him from his own inspirational “Last Lecture.” Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at age 47, leaving behind a wife and three young children. Before he died, Pausch shared a “Last Lecture,” first on You Tube and then in book which led the New York Times best-selling books list for nearly two years.

In his lecture, Pausch advised his listeners to approach life with childlike wonder, never to forget to live life to its fullest and to have some fun in life. Perhaps his most meaningful point came near the end of his talk when Pausch said, “It is not about how you achieve your dreams, it is about how you lead your life.”

Today’s Gospel lesson from St. John continues Jesus’ own “last lecture” to his disciples. As we were last Sunday, in this text we are back in Holy Week and Jesus has important words to share with his disciples before he is captured and crucified. Perhaps Jesus’ most important words in today’s lesson are these, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

As I was growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents idea of a vacation was to go to New York City, staying at the cheapest hotel they could find, when there were still inexpensive hotels to find in Manhattan. They would then see Broadway musicals, usually purchasing the $2.50 seats that were then available in the last row of the balcony. When my brother, Byron, and I were old enough, my parents took us along on some of these adventures.

One of the first shows I saw on Broadway was a new musical by Lerner and Lowe, a musical called Camelot. Camelot introduced to Broadway an up and coming young tenor named Robert Goulet and an English Shakespearian actor named Richard Burton. Rounding out the amazing cast leads were Julie Andrews, in her first major role since Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady on Broadway, and Roddy McDowell.

In the last scene of Camelot, King Arthur spins out a song filled with memories of what the King believed 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 His 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 seen as a Camelot song, for John wrote these words long after Jesus was gone. This gospel was written 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 - 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 despair could defeat them.

The gospel writer knew the dangers of such despair. So it was that John pulled together many of the things Jesus said into this one section of the Gospel known as "The Farewell Discourses." It's a bit like those college “Last Lectures” I mentioned earlier and even more powerful than Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”

Here at the table, Jesus says the same things over and over in different ways. And, no surprise, Jesus’ central word is 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 other each 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 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. He should have said, "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 Holy 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 Jesus 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 John wrote at the very beginning of this Gospel. The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep in creation, took on flesh in the one who now sat with them at the table. Earlier that same evening, this Living Word, Jesus, had bent down to wash the disciples' dirty feet. You can't get much more down-to-earth than that. Jesus was very clear. The Spirit that dwells in me will abide also in you.

In last Sunday’s gospel, the text right before today’s lesson, 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. 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, Jesus’ own “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."

Jesus was saying: You don't know everything yet. You have more to learn. In every generation you will be faced with new questions and perplexities. Does the sun revolve around the earth or is it the other way around? Should nuclear weapons ever be used against an enemy? Is welfare the best way to bear one another's burdens? What can we do about global warming?

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 well-known church historian. Reuther 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.
My friend ELCA pastor and seminary preaching professor Barbara Lundblad, to whom I am indebted for many of the ideas in this sermon, writes that some years ago she read that the reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home. Lundblad notes that whoever said that was playing with us a bit, for we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there's a 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."

Our life of faith can be like that - doubts can set in, despair can overwhelm us, and even the whole notion of believing in God can sometimes seem 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."

Jesus’ 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 may seem to make more sense, but we know cannot give us life.

When all else fails, we always have Jesus’ promise from today’s Gospel: “I will not, I will never, leave you.” Jesus will always be with us, in the good times and in the bad times.

And that, in the best and, especially, in the worst of times, is enough.

Amen.

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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