Sermon — “Where do we stand?”

Rev. Stacy Swain

Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21

         She was jumping rope on the playground at her elementary school when she saw it — the pavement rippling towards her like someone shaking out a bed sheet.  When it hit, she was tossed down.   She tried to crawl away to solid ground, but there was nowhere to go.  There was nowhere to stand.   All was in flux.

           He did not see the wave before it hit him. It caught him unprepared.  He had been sitting there in the sun, watching as she walked across the stage.  He was delighting in all she had become, — her eyes wide with a smile even wider.  Then in an instant, his throat thickened and he grasped his plastic chair in a desperate attempt to keep the wave of loss  from washing him off of his seat, from carrying him far afield from the celebration graduation was supposed to be. 

           The loss, she said, felt like an earthquake.  A seismic jolt tearing apart her life.  Plans and hopes, tumbling off the selves, shattering into indistinguishable pieces around her feet.  After it was over, she stood still for a good long while trying to take it in.  Afraid to move lest she cut herself on the sharpness of the shards, on the shrapnel of what used to be her life.

           In a heart beat our lives can turn upside down. The ground we thought would hold us forever, gives way.  And the unsettling truth is –that  this happens all the time.  Natural disasters rearrange reality almost daily it seems.  People we love die.  Transitions of life reshape our living, parents age, and children grow, graduate and move on without us.  Just yesterday, I listened to the stranger next to me in the locker room at the gym as she told me with eyes streaming about her life that was simply falling apart.   

           Rationally we know that change and loss are part of life and you would think we ought to be ready.  But when these things hit, they knocks us off our feet and onto our knees.  For loving life and each other as we do leaves us vulnerable to feel adrift, unmoored, without anywhere to stand when change strikes, when our lives are not and will no longer ever be as they were before.  

           The reading from the gospel of John this morning takes us to the cusp of such a time. It is the time between the last supper and Jesus’ crucifixion.  Jesus is gathered with his disciples.  He looks into their faces and he loves them and he sees their hope and his heart aches for he knows that their lives are about to be turned upside down.  He knows that with his arrest, trial and execution the ground will shift under their feet and they will fall down and now know how to rise again.  He knows that their hopes and their dreams will come crashing down and that the future would appear a sharp shards more full of wounds than promise. He knows that they will feel swept away by a tidal wave of loss.  

           And yet, as hard as it can be, Jesus knows; for it is the truth of his living, that there is stillness in the storm, a shelter from the storm, a strong and steady presence right there in the midst of the turbulence of our temporal lives.  In what is called his farewell discourse, Jesus speaks good news to the disciples, assuring them that in spite of all that comes, they will not be left orphaned.  He will not leave them to be cast adrift, unmoored, alone and exposed in the world.  Though he will be physically taken from them, Jesus assures the disciples that nothing can take them from the presence of God.  The Spirit will be with them and through the Spirit, no matter where they go or whatever  befalls them they will forever dwell in the presence of God.    

           Paul Tillich in his book, “Courage to Be” reminds us that who we are in the core of our being is not contingent on the circumstances of our life.  Our essence, the life force that makes us who we are is a part of the what Tillich calls the “God beyond God.”  By this he means that God, is so much more than that what we can ever fully conceive.  We experience God but we know that there is so much more of God than what we even know.  And it is in the vastness of this cosmic life giving God that we too live and move and have our being. 

          This is the mystery that Paul is sharing with those pragmatic thinkers of Athens.  Paul begins by complimenting them on how extremely religious they must be for he has seen the numerous objects of their worship all over the city but he quickly goes on to let speak to them of the unknown God who made the world and everything in it.  This great and powerful God,  the Lord of heaven and earth who cannot be confined by shrines and idols, things made by human hands.   God is surely present to us in time and in place but God can never be contained by time and place.   And while God has set us down in this place and time and has given us boundaries of our existence, the source of our being is not in time and place, it is in this vast and powerful God.  Our rootedness in god is the stillness in the storm.  God is the ground of our being and on which we can stand.        

           And standing on the eternal presence of God in the temporal tides of our live, gives us the courage to be.  Far from making us less invested in the here and now, we are actually freed to be even more passionately engaged in our own lives and in those around us.  All becomes even more precious because we can be in this place and time without needing to guard and protect ourselves from the fear and pain of losing what we hold so dear.  We are freed to be fully present to all that we face both in its joy and in its pain because we know that the God is fully present to us, that nothing can leave us orphaned, no loss or hurt or pain can ever separate us from God in whom we live and move and have our being.   And that assurance, ought to give us courage to live boldly, to love extravagantly, to reach out fully to all who feel adrift by loss or caught up in the turbulence of life so that through the Holy Spirit working in us, the steadfast love of the God that will never leave any of us orphaned may be revealed.

           This summer, Annie, Brita, Julia and I will be traveling to Africa.  We will be going to Zambia and we spend time in Mtendere, a compound in one of the outlying neighborhoods of the capital of Lasaka .  We will be spending time with the children, children whose lives have been turned upside down, who have been knocked off their feet and onto their knees as the wave of the AIDS epidemic swept their parents from them, leaving them orphaned.  Did you know, did you realize that there are almost one million orphans in Zambia, one million orphans in a country whose total population is only 10 million.[1] And so we are going to Mtendere, as your hands and feet and hearts, because you and I together with others from neighboring churches, and communities without borders and our sister Zambian organization, Society of Women Against AIDS will not leave these children orphaned.  We will help create educational opportunities for these children.  We will teach and learn together, we will play and jump rope in the playground together.  We will surround each other with love and care, so that these children may feel solid ground under their feet again.  So that they too know, that they are grounded in the love of God that lifts and supports them in spite of the turbulence of live.  

          So let us live boldly, let us love extravagantly, and let us reach out widely so that through the power of the Holy Spirit,  the steadfast love of the God that will never leave any of us orphaned may be revealed to us and through us, AMEN.

[1]From the Handbook for CWB Travelers to Zambia.  P. 2.