THE TENDER GOOD-BY
A sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
May 14, 2017 Mother’s Day
1 Peter 2:2-10
Psalm 31: 1-5 and 15-16
Spring can be a season of taking stock, of change, of good-bys, especially if you are connected to the academic world.
For high school or college seniors, May and June can mean saying good by to longtime friends, teachers, and activities, looking forward to the next step, and receiving recognition for work accomplished.
For parents, it can mean your five-year-old says good –by to preschool, your thirteen year-old says good-by to elementary school, your eighteen-year-old says good-by to high school, and parents say good by to an old relationship with their children and watch them move on to the next place.
Mother’s Day is a time to honor those who “mother “– whether it is a biological mother, an adopted one, an aunt, or even a beloved pet who nurtures us. Many of us here have had to say good by to our mothers either through death or through illnesses such as the one called “the long good-by.”
However, good-byes really know no season. People die, people move, change jobs; friendships end, families reconfigure; all necessitating some kind of farewell. In fact, every family, every marriage, every friendship, is marked for loss, for the prospect of death, of absence. Sooner or later, willingly or not, one person will leave.
Today’s Gospel is a good-by, a “farewell discourse” from Jesus to his disciples gathered on Maundy Thursday in the Upper Room, right before his death. This sequencing is unique to John; in fact, 90% of what is in John is unique to John – it is not one of the three synoptic or “similar” Gospels. This will be important later.
The spirit of this passage is fairly standard, reminiscent of what a parent might say to a child or one one friend to another, when a major change is about to take place.
In the tenderest voice, I think, this is the essence of what Jesus is saying here: Don’t worry. There will always be a place for you when you come home. If you forget what I have said to you, remember what I did. And I will always do what I can to give you what you ask of me..
But, of course, there is more. And in the “more” we learn at least three things; we discover who Jesus insists he is; we hear words of promise often construed now as threat; and we are given a hint of what heaven is like.
Jesus is very clear about who he is, and it does not fit in with the “spiritual but not religious” line of thinking. I admit I’m never sure what this phrase means, other than a rejection of any kind of organized religion. But in this Gospel, Jesus says plainly that to see him is to know what God is like. This circles back to the prologue to John’s Gospel, usually read the first Sunday after Christmas which gives a poetic version of the Incarnation—nothing about stables and stars or Joseph and Mary here. Instead it reads, in part: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Or – whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father.
Of course, we have never physically seen Jesus but know him from the Scripture where we learn that the the God is one who loves all creation, without exception, loves justice and equity and seems to always be on the side of the oppressed. We learn that God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.
In that respect, let me detour into a part of one of the other readings designated for today and explain its notable contemporary relevance.
At the end of today’s Epistle, is an important reference to mercy:
“Once you were not a people
but now you are God’s people.
Once you had not received mercy
But now you have received it.”
Like many of you, I am exhausted by our government right now, and by its failure to meet even minimal moral standards. I am frustrated that so few leaders can articulate persuasively the problems or solutions. But in referencing the shortcomings of a piece of legislation passed by the House last week, Rep Joe Kennedy III made a compelling reference to mercy:
“It is among the most basic human truths: Every one of us, some day, will be brought to our knees. By a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a phone call we can’t imagine, or a loss we cannot endure. That common humanity inspires our mercy. It fortifies our compassion. It drives us to look out for the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the most vulnerable among us…. (We cannot pass legislation …) that scapegoats the struggling, and sees fault in suffering…We must decide, instead, to take care of each other — because, but for the grace of God, we will all one-day wake up in need of a little mercy. This nation’s character has never been defined by the power we give the already strong — but by the strength we give the weak.”
Jesus gets impatient when people aren’t paying attention. He says to Philip, “Have I been with you all this time, Phillip, and you still do not know me?” We have spent enough time with Jesus to know what his priorities really are, and one is mercy.
This section of Scripture, of John, contains one of the most divisive and dangerous verses in the Bible: “Jesus said “No one comes to the Father but by me.” Many conservative groups argue that this “proves” that other faiths are not valid. Only Christianity.
The best discussion of this phrase is is by the person who writes, “Jesus is talking to his friends here, his most beloved disciples in the Upper Room, after washing their feet and learning that Judas would betray him. He wasn’t addressing an interfaith assembly of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, telling them their beliefs are wrong.” Also note that this phrase in any of the other three “synoptic” Gospels.
He tells his disciples that competition, wealth and injustice are not paths to the Father. The Way that Jesus comes to the Father must be our way as well: through Love, inclusive, and all-encompassing, and justice, uncompromising and compassionate. That is how you come to the Father, says Jesus. You are walking the Way.
Last Sunday I was the narrator at a concert with a sixty voice choir named Magnum Chorum, many of them young people who have gradated from some of the Midwest “Lutheran” schools: St Olaf, Luther Concordia. I was at a number of rehearsals last week and earlier.
I was interested in seeing that before every rehearsal and before the concert itself the conductor or someone else led the group in a prayer and not some hurry-up thing but a time of focus and stillness, usually an acknowledgement of the gifts of music and song, and the desire to be a gift to listeners.
And I realized how casual I have become with my religion: Grace before meals… maybe, but don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable… Volunteering? Well if I have time… Worship? Usually, unless there’s, you know, stuff….
Too often we may act like religion is a mood instead of a disciplined practice, a Way to staying connected to more than yourself and your burning issues of the moment. The Lutherans served up a reminder and I’m grateful to be helped back on to a more intentional path, especially as summer beckons.
There is one phrase in this Gospel today that speaks to me deeply and is often read at funerals, for obvious reasons: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places…. I go to prepare a place for you…”
We may have heard “dwelling places’ translated as “mansions” or “rooms” but the original intent is different. Originally the word was “monai.” “Monai” means a temporary resting place for a traveler made possible by people who would go ahead and “prepare a place’ so that when the caravan arrived the camp ground had been prepared, the water supply located and food prepared so the travelers would have a place of comfort to spend the night. One person writes “Monai is less about getting some fancy digs in the hereafter in a house separate from the people you can’t stand as it is hospitality…”
When my daughter was about ten she went away to over-night camp for the first time and for a whole week. It was hard saying good-by (for me, not her). I used the time to redo her bedroom as a surprise. I painted the walls a pretty blue, sewed flowered curtains, bought a new quilt and painted the dingy brown dresser white. I put her favorite things back on the wall. All the while, I tried to remember what she would like and not what I thought she should like. Right before she came home, I put flowers in the room and encouraged the cat to curl up at the end of the bed in a picturesque pose – like that worked.
And when she walked in and saw it, she was happy in a way that only ten-year-old girls can be happy. Almost as happy as I was to do this for her.
I think that God is one who loves us and understands us more than we can imagine is Mother and Father who prepares a place for us. That phrase is an important part of the tender good-bye in this Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel as Jesus says good-by. Because, like the student coming home from college at Thanksgiving, Jesus will not be the same when he encounters the Disciples after the Resurrection.
Let me close with a segment from Thornton Wilder’s epic play Our Town. In the story Emily dies in childbirth, but is allowed to come back to earth for one day: she chooses her twelfth birthday.
At the end of that day as she prepares to leave, this time forever, she says this: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize all that was going on in life and we never noticed. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up. … Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute. I should have listened … but human beings are just blind people.”
The writer Mary Ann Evans: “Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is today.