From the age of about 12 or 13 until I left for college, my mother and I lived alone. My sisters had left for college and it was just the two of us. Occasionally on weeknights, with her having had a long day as an English teacher, we would get our little portable black and white TV set and put it in the dining room table while she cooked and I did homework. And if Little House on the Prairie was on, we would keep it on while we ate. And almost every time, no matter when we came into the story, even if we didn’t know what was happening, if Michael Landon had tears in his eyes, then my mother and I would start to cry, and we would laugh at ourselves in the process of wiping tears.
Fast forward to today, and now I own all the seasons on my Amazon Prime account. It’s hard to pick a favorite episode, but if i had to pick it would be the one called ”Remember Me.” The guest star was Patricia Neal, an old Hollywood and stage actress. Neal player a widow who finds out she has cancer and doesn’t have long to live. She has three children to provide a home for before she goes, and assigns the task to Charles Ingalls. These are the uplifting shows I enjoy on time off. Neal’s character is stoic from beginning to end. Just a week before her death the families gather after church for a picnic and the widow decides to play tag with the children. When Caroline Ingalls tries to slow her down, concerned for her health, the widow says, “I want them to remember me laughing.”
Fast forward to her funeral, the Reverend Alden, instead of a sermon reads what the widow instructed him to read - two simple sentences. “Remember me with smiles and laughter for that’s the way I’ll remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears then don’t remember me at all.”
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus is essentially saying remember me. In the beginning of what is often referred to as Jesus’ farewell discourse, the Gospel of John was written roughly 70 years after Jesus death, which means for 70 years, his followers, his followers’ children, new followers - maybe third generation now, have all waited for him to come back in an apocalyptic moment. That imagined apocalyptic moment is the moment that those who are hopeless hold onto, imagining that when Jesus returns all their suffering will end.
So by the time John’s Gospel is written, you can imagine how many of his followers, now at least 70 years later, are beginning to lose the hopes of his return. John’s Gospel takes a different approach, with reassuring words for those who are about to give up hope. Instead of promising his return in an apocalyptic way, in a warning of separating sheep from goats (as Matthew’s Gospel does), he reassures them before he dies, saying “I’ll always be with you, within you…”
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Jesus says….and God will give you another advocate…..to be with you forever……”
Advocate is the English translation of the greek word Paraclete. And like so many of the greek words we translate, the word Paraclete can also mean a comforter or a helper. But Jesus further defines the word for us, calling it the spirit of truth. John’s Gospel is big on the spirit, and depicts the spirit differently than we’re used to at Pentecost. Jesus tells us we will know this spirit.
You know him, (Jesus says) because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
What does it mean to have the living spirit of Christ live within you? How do you access that spirt of truth, that advocate, that helper, that comfort, that peace within you? Especially these days when we need him most.
Jesus lays out the answer in part, saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
The farewell discourse reads like a love letter, spoken to the disciples who Jesus is assuring the never-ending love that will be with them eternally, not because of some future apocalyptic day, but from the moment he dies, his love remains within them. And they will know it as long as they are following his commandments. And what are the commandments most dear to Jesus? To love God and love others. Love begets love, it’s that simple, and at times, that difficult.
During Bible study this week, Laura H made an very important observation. She said, “The scripture reads like a conditional formula, if you do this, than I will do that…if you keep the commandments then you will know my love.”
It does sound conditional, more accurately it’s covenantal. Covenants were made between leaders and nations, between kings and subjects, agreements in which both parties held a responsibility. If you love me….he says…if you love me, you’ll keep the commandments.
But our part in this two way street to love begins with our love: “If you love me,” Jesus says. When we love someone, anyone, we find ourselves wanting to make them happy, to serve them, to find ways to honor them. Not because it’s a chore, but because we love them. When we love Christ, we keep his commandments out of love: love for him, love for God and love for others.
It sounds all so simple, and yet we know it takes constant listening, and discipline and practice. That’s why our mission statement is to practice love as we follow Christ. And in that love, the practice of love, we begin to find new ways of living we never knew existed. As we journey with Christ by following the commandments of love, we begin to find new things about ourselves and the world, that we never thought possible.
Jesus promises us the spirit of truth, but it will require something of us, and that is to practice love in our homes, in our world and with ourselves. It takes listening, it takes paying attention, patience, kindness, gentleness. Sometimes it takes fierceness and boldness, and standing up to those who are treating others unfairly. Love has many shades and colors, and you’ll know it’s truth within you. You’ll know it, not with your head but with your gut, your intuition and that still small voice we spoke about last week that your integrity is built upon, which as christians is built upon the love of Christ.
Many of you have heard me describe spirit as my first love. Growing up, during those same formative years between 13 and 17, my mother explored her own truth and spirit and in the process gave her daughter permission to do the same. We explored astrology. She taught me how to look at tarot cards and the I Ching, which is an ancient book of Chinese wisdom. What I learned from her in the way we used these tools, was that they were a way of revealing to us what already lived within us. They did not give yes or no answers. They spoke in riddles and parables and poetry (not unlike Jesus), and how we interpreted them would lead to new insight and ways of understanding.
And this week, in our Thursday morning mediation group, that very thing happened as the group and I have been enjoying these Mary Oracle cards. They’re these beautiful cards with illustrations, each written in the imagined voice of mother Mary. And this week, of all the cards I could pick, this is the one that was chosen with my eyes closed: Our Lady of Comfort, on same the week we hear Jesus say the words, “God will give you the Paraclete, a comforter to be with you.”
And the oracle card begins this way, in the imagined voice of Mary, but you can imagine God, or Jesus, using the very same words: ”Even though you may not see me, I am holding your hand. Even though you may not hear me, I am speaking through your heart. I am never far away from you. I am by your side, with love, guidance and protection, always. you are my own. I could not bear to be apart from you. Receive my message of comfort and peace.”
When I was in 3rd grade roughly, my grandmother on my father’s side, Grandma Hazel, died. It was my first real experience with death and the wake. Seeing the open casket scared me enough that I was too scared to sleep by myself. But I didn’t tell anyone. Instead I used the excuse of the hot summer nights as a way to sleep on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, which was the only room in the house with an air conditioner. After about a week or two, my father finally kicked me out, and I made a stink as I have been known to do, and my mother followed me into my room, and I finally admitted how scared I was that Grandma Hazel’s ghost was going to come haunt me. And my mother said, “Grandma Hazel loved you. If she shows up as a ghost or a spirit, it will only be to help you.”
That was it, that was all I needed to hear….
Here’s all you need to hear: Jesus loves you. And if he shows up in spirit, it’s only to help you, to advocate for you, to comfort you.
There are a lot of people in need of comfort right now. Those who are most in need feel alone. Whether they’re sick or grieving the death of a loved one, or whether they’re on the front lines of serving in hospitals and other capacities, suffering form burnout and exhaustion, searching for ways to keep food on the table with no job, at risk of losing their homes. We pray they find the comfort they need, the advocates they need, the spirit of peace they need to keep going. And as so many of us are fortunate right now not to be suffering in those ways, we practice following Jesus’s commandment, and search out ways to be an advocate, a helper, a comfort for those in need.
The Christians who were waiting for the return of Christ when John’s Gospel was written were losing hope. They want to be rescued and saved from suffering in one big apocalyptic moment. But Jesus says, I’m here already, here to guide you through the struggle, here to strengthen you in the suffering.
Jesus says, if you love me, really love me, then love God and love others. Practice that love by the way you live, through the words you speak, the ways you give, the ways you can be a comfort to others, and you will discover a love in turn that never abandons, always comforts, this day and forevermore.