Sermon May 16 2021 In the World (John 17:6ff) Rev. Betsy Hogan
So here's a question for you: where are you from? It's a question that in Nova Scotia can sometimes spark amusement of the "who's yer father" variety, but can also sometimes be a bit fraught. Highlighting, as it so often does, and sometimes it's very much meant to, the difference between being from here as opposed to from away.
But setting aside the ways in which it's a question that's occasionally weaponized, whether gently or more fiercely, it's a question that I think is evoked a bit – if a little obliquely – by Jesus' prayer for his disciples that we just heard in the reading from John's gospel.
Because at its heart, it's a prayer at the time of leaving.
The whole Easter season what we've been hearing are the stories of "after the resurrection". When Jesus keeps popping up, risen, visible, tangible, to interact with the disciples to give them comfort, to give them courage, to give them guidance, for the part that comes next.
The part where he leaves. Which he's kept warning them about, that it's going to be happening – yes, he's been back with them risen for all these several weeks, but that's just temporary. And what they're ACTUALLY going to be left with is a Spirit.
NOT visible, NOT tangible, NOT in a familiar and beloved human shape that can be leaned into and embraced and heard and felt –
But this very nebulous and not particularly well-described SPIRIT. Wind, breath, power. Swirling sort of vaguely. In and around and through. In a way that's somehow uplifting, and somehow comforting, and somehow compelling – but very much not concrete.
More of a presence. Which, for the disciples, just as for us, even while recognizing and taking seriously the reality of the grief that represents – it's a shift beyond the veil that I think we ARE at some level able to grasp.
The physicalness of a person isn't all of that person. Their spirit transcends that physical. And it somehow continues. The disciples would already have known that from their own life experiences, from whatever losses each of them has sustained.
In the Jewish tradition, the words of comfort after a death are "may their memory be a blessing" – and every one of the disciples would have heard those words at different times in their life and would know in their bones the "spirit" of their loved one being invoked.
So this is what they're being prepared for, all these weeks after Easter, by Jesus. The disappearing. In church-speak, the Ascension into Heaven – but in actual world-speak, the disappearing. That shift beyond visible and tangible into Spirit.
And WHILE Jesus is preparing them, he's also praying for them. His prayer at the time of leaving. A part of which was our reading this morning....
and ALL of which can essentially be distilled into asking God to watch over them and protect them after he's gone. Exactly what we might imagine his prayer would be. Saying to God, "the whole time I was with them, I watched over them, I tried to teach them everything, I tried to make them good and strong and faithful, so now when I have to leave them, I hand them over to you."
It's a beautiful prayer at the time of leaving. The best any of us can pray or have prayed for us at the time of leaving.
But what I find especially striking in Jesus' words here, thinking about them right now, is the emphasis he places in this prayer on the fact that he's leaving the disciples "in the world".
Which, I know it probably sounds a bit obvious – but it's actually not meaningless. Because at the time, in the first century, around the Mediterranean lands, there was a significant movement in the culture in general toward the kind of spiritualism that was instead focused on escaping the world, or denying the world.
We see a bit of that trend in what we know about John the Baptist, who sort of wanders around the desert eating only locusts and wild honey. And the Essenes were similar -- another sect of first century Judaism that preached retreat from the world and focused only on "spiritual matters".
And then in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church he makes mention of Greek philosophies that ALSO preached spiritualism and self-denial. So it's an emerging part of Judaism, it's an emerging part of Greek tradition -- it's very much a cultural ethos that's at play at the time that Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples. To be "truly spiritual" being understood as meaning to deny the world, to deny the physical. Retreating into a mysticism in which none of that earthly detail ultimately matters. It's very much a cultural ethos at play as Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples.
So he's absolutely clear in the words of this leaving prayer. The world is real. The disciples are in it. And it matters.
His prayer is really specific. He's not just praying for God to watch over the disciples because he's leaving them. He's praying for God to watch over the disciples because he's leaving them in the world.
Living in the world. Participating in the world. Engaging in the world.
Not retreating into some kind of holy sanctuary of bird song and roses, not escaping into some sort of barren emptiness where nothing really matters – in the world.
With all its specificity and detail and stubbed toes and leaky roofs and people.
Beautiful amazing messy complicated people. Holy Father, Jesus prays with every fibre of his being, watch over them when I leave them, take care of them when I leave them, because I'm leaving them in the world – with people.
With each other.... with people. Each of whom and all of whom are their own selves. Beautiful amazing messy and complicated. Built up out of their own experiences, their own traditions, their own cultures, their own graces and scars and needs and yearnings, and rooted with their own roots.
So. Where are you from? What is it that's at your foundation, out of which you've been built?
Because obliquely or not, the realness of that and how much it matters is at the heart of this prayer. Yes, it's a prayer at the time of leaving. That's the surface and that's obvious. But it also speaks to the essence of the faithfulness Jesus proclaimed as being "of the earth, earthy". We're in the world. The detail and specificity of our createdness matters.
Because where we're from is intrinsic to who we are. There's land that looks like home. There are sounds that sound like home. There are smells that smell like home. And even if these have somehow been cobbled together from a lifetime's amalgamating of experiences of restfulness on roads from hither to yon – the notion of "home" is deeply humanly evocative.
We know that in our own lives and we know it just as surely from the stories of our faith, SO MANY of which are at their heart about wandering, about journeying, about being in exile... and finding a way home.
So why am I rattling on about this? Because here we are, being prayed for by Jesus because we've been left in the world – and being left in the world is sometimes hard and he knew it, which is why he prayed for his disciples in the first place –
But in particular, in the world right now, in which we've been left, there's a tremendous amount of violence that's being unleashed and being suffered on the very earth on which Jesus walked in his lifetime – because people have been forcibly taken from their homes.
Which means that as Christians who understand that deep and Biblical meaning of home, and how intrinsic it is to who we are, it's incumbent on us to pause right now and sit with what that would be like. How it would feel.
We know in our own city what it looks like, of course, and even in my lifetime with the razing of Africville. And not much further back, only in the 1940s, Vancouverites of Japanese descent experienced it too, when their homes were expropriated by the Canadian government and they were expelled. "Back" to Japan, or to internment camps. Quite apart from the settlement of this land we're on in the first place.
So it's not a new thing and even in Canada and even in Halifax. And in apologies tendered we've claimed to understand, at some level at least, in our bones, what a WRONG it is. To take someone by force from their home, from their place, from the 'where they're from' that grounded them.
Colonialism is complicated. To say it's particularly complicated in relation to the state of Israel is putting it mildly. To the point of being ridiculous, if not patently egregious in kneejerking issues that demand nuanced responses and spiderwebs of care.
But this is also true. In a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, people are being forced out of their homes. Their place. The where they're from.
And if, from the emotional distance of any non-violent resistance high horses, we can regret every Hamas rocket launched in retaliation, there isn't ANY place good to put the "we know how powerful they are because we made them" Israeli bombs currently raining down murderous destruction on Gaza in return. Because ultimately?
In a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, the same government that's dropping those bombs is the same government that decided it had the right to bulldoze people's homes in the first place. Their place. The where they're from. And if maybe we can only imagine what that would be like, I suspect that at least some of those from New Horizons with whom we share our worship space could tell us EXACTLY what that's like. And how it feels, in the bones.
It's not okay. It's not right, it's not acceptable. When Jesus was preparing to leave the disciples, he prayed for them "God, watch over them, because they live in the world." And so we do. We're of the earth, earthy. We know that place matters, and where we're from matters, and home matters.
So when Jesus prays on this last Sunday of the Season of Easter? It's a time for us to pray too.
Let us pray:
We pray for an end to the violence in Israel, in East Jerusalem, in Gaza.
We thank you for the strong voices being raised around the world calling for an end to bombing, an end to land expropriation, an end to the explusion of Palestinians,
and we join with Christians and Jews and Muslims around the globe
In praying for peace.
At a time when so many are chafing at having to STAY home,
we thank you for those leaving home each day to provide health care and essential services, and we pray for all who are yearning for home.
For those broken-hearted and angry at being displaced
For all who've fled as refugees
For those who've migrated to work
For all whose lives are restless, unrooted, and transient
For all who live unsheltered
And all who are in hospital.
Grant to us, we pray, the wisdom and patience to live in a complicated world
To deal with complicated people.
To be kind and to listen,
To be courageous and to challenge wrong-doing,
To build one another up
And be for each other your spirit of grace and healing and hope.
Be for us, we pray, our rest at the end of each day
and the balm that tends our sore places,
the light that guides us through shadows
and the home in which we're not afraid. Amen.