What is it then between us?—May 21, 2017

John 14:15-21
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman

Sermon delivered at Ballard First Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA

His disciples seemed to sense that something was up.

Jesus had told his friends, in so many words, that he was leaving. He didn’t say dying, or crucified, or anything like that. Just that he was going somewhere his friends couldn’t follow, and that his presence among his disciples was going to change.

So, of course, before today’s Gospel, Peter would ask, “Lord, where are you going?”

And it makes sense that last Sunday we heard Philip say, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.

It just doesn’t work though. Jesus does answer their questions, but it doesn’t make sense to the disciples.

Before this chapter in John we’ve just heard today, Jesus was washing his disciples feet, was having his last meal with them, and he gave them their special, new commandment—that they love each other. What we’ve heard is a small portion of Jesus’ good-bye speech—[kind of] his last conversation with his disciples after he washed their feet.

Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

Isn’t that confusing? Well, think how confused his disciples must have felt. Jesus kinda answers Peter and Philips’ questions, but it doesn’t really make sense to them. Of course they were asking clarifying questions—because none of this was clear at all!

Not only the disciples, but maybe you are confused too by our Gospel…

If this is Easter-time—the time when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and the victory of God’s love over death—then why are we hearing the words Jesus spoke just before being handed over to the Romans?

And what’s more, here, Jesus is talking about abiding in things, advocates, spirits, orphans, confusing lists of things in things, in me, in my father, in you!

Ah! At first I think, just like the disciples, Jesus, just come out and say what you mean! But, actually, I argue today, this is one of those times when the amazing, joyful—totally mystical—essence of Scripture is right in front of us. Jesus does say exactly what he means, but it’s so plain we can’t believe it.

If his disciples sensed that he was up to something in this farewell speech, they were right, because in an astonishing and prophetic flourish, Jesus in this Gospel lesson, is speaking exactly about this post-resurrection time, this Easter-time, that only we today experience. This time about which Jesus speaks when he says, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live.”

Yes, his disciples had no idea what was going on, they had no idea what was going to happen on the cross and in the tomb. How could they have known? But we, the Church of 2017, we’re in a different and privileged position. We have the benefit of history—of tradition—and of all the Gospel books put together. We already know the story of betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection by heart—don’t we?

So, here’s the key—believe it or not—this Gospel according to John, this chapter, these verses, they were not written for those disciples—not some distant and imaginary audience—the disciples are just characters in a play… These words today weren’t written for anyone but us, it was written to each one of you.

Jesus in God is present with us as we hear these strange words.

Jesus says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

I believe God in Jesus is literally present with us as we hear these words, his promise is fulfilled in our hearing it.

That advocate thing, that Spirit of truth, that Jesus says he and the Father will give—what if that was the ability to know—or the power to recognize—Jesus is actually here today as we read?

Jesus says, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

Maybe encountering the Risen Jesus is just way easier than we’ve come to expect?

 That’s what Easter-time is about, anyway, right? Hearing about encounters with the Risen Jesus?

When I’ve been saying that Jesus is Risen, all these years, those exact words coming out of my mouth for so many Sundays—did I have any idea what I was actually talking about?

I realize now that I just don’t know what you’all are thinking when you hear these Resurrection encounters, at the tomb with Mary, or Jesus on the way to Emmaus, Jesus eating breakfast on the beach with his disciples, or Jesus inside locked rooms with Thomas hand in his side… Do you know what it means that Jesus is Risen? Is Jesus here? Where?

I realized, at least myself, that I’ve been thinking about it all wrong…

In these past 9 or so months with you as your Vicar, I have begun to get the strange sensation, that you think I know what I’m talking about. Or that somehow I believe and understand perfectly every word I read, and every bible verse I talk about.

That is definitely not the case.

I hope that encountering the Risen Jesus is way simpler than I’ve come to expect, because when I look around in our so-called post-resurrection world, I want to lash out at God and say, “Resurrection!?”

What ever actually changes in our lives after Easter Sunday, anyway?
What happens after this supposed big life changing encounter with Jesus?
Do our loved ones wake from the sleep of death—or do they go on being dead?
Do our problems cease, does the world stop seething with fear and hate—or does the world go on, relentlessly and brutally toward profit and security?
Do foolish and asinine leaders come crashing down from their thrones?
Do the innocent black men and boys our country loves to kill ever come back to life?
Do the tens of thousands of war dead in Syria and Iraq rise from their graves?

Do they, God!?

What do you mean Jesus is Risen?

Those are the questions that well up in my heart—maybe those are your questions too—when you’ve just had enough of this world.

Questions that kind of echo the questions of Peter and Philip, “Where are you going, Jesus? Why don’t you just show us the father?”

Easter-time, this year for me, has been a time of desperately hoping that maybe encountering the Risen Jesus is way more simple than I’ve come to expect.

 Maybe the Resurrection doesn’t flip the world upside down. But, instead, there is the most simple, yet undeniable, touch of God’s presence.

I believe God in Jesus through today’s Gospel—and maybe even in all of Scripture—is very truly tapping us on the shoulder, and saying that Jesus is Risen, that God is here, that God is with us, and surprisingly we are in God too…

How is Jesus here?

Well, this is going to sound silly maybe, but the way God reaches out to us in Scripture today, is just like a poem by Walt Whitman, called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

As some of you may know I used to live in New York City. And living in New York you travel a lot between boroughs. I lived in Brooklyn and I worked in Manhattan. So I would take the subway. My wife Maddy went to school on Staten Island, so I would take the ferry to see her. The big, famous bridges between all the boroughs weren’t built until the 1880s, before that, boats and ferries took people between boroughs.

So in this poem, Walt Whitman, American poet from the 1800s, was riding across the East River in New York. A commute I myself have done a million times.

So one day, while on the subway going back home to Brooklyn after work, and reading Walt Whitman’s poetry, I came across this very startling poem. The subway car rattled out onto the bridge that crosses the East River—as I read these lines…

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

I thought that’s kind of funny… it’s like he’s sort of talking to me in the future… I read on…

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east…
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them…

I started to feel strange reading, seeing the same sights that the poet was describing. And then I read on…

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of the living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the right flow, I was refresh’d.

Do you see the strange way that Whitman reaches out, across time and space—reached out through the words on the page and became present with me? I can’t really explain it, but I started to tear up as I read, and as I looked out at the river below, and the buildings and people and the sea-gulls, just as Whitman described them.

Maybe this 6th Sunday of Easter is the time when we should take Jesus’ word literally for once.

When Jesus says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

Maybe it comes completely true as we read it, as we believe that it is true.

We aren’t orphaned, now or ever, but Jesus lives in us, and we live in Jesus.

That’s what Easter-time is about: receiving the simple, but crazy, truth about God’s presence in all our lives. But, especially, God’s presence in Scripture, as God reaches out across the deeps of time, and touches us.

I think Jesus’ relationship with us is amazingly just like what Whitman continues to write in his poem, to me and all the other future commuters over the East River, saying,

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not…

Neither does time nor distance keep the presence of Jesus out of our midst, despite what tragedies are in our daily lives.

Whitman goes on in even more detail—and just as Whitman’s words hit me like a ton of bricks on the subway, they could also easily be the words of God in Jesus Christ flying to our modern ears, right now! God our creator, Jesus our brother, and the Holy Spirit our advocate, according to Walt Whitman, work together saying,

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

And so, however the reminders come to us—whether with the words of the Gospel writer John, or the poet Walt Whitman, in a pop song, or in the smile of your children—they come by the power of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, so that Resurrection Peace that comes to us from God, and which passes all understanding, will keep our Hearts and Minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

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