Sunday May 5,
Fifth Sunday after Easter
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Senior Pastor
I’ve been getting a lot of comments these past few weeks about the length of the worship services recently. Mostly from the nursery workers. We work very hard to plan worship that lasts about an hour on Sunday mornings, but sometimes, it’s true, we go over a little. I was thinking our services may have run a bit longer than usual because during the season of Easter we’ve had the opportunity to hear your amazing personal resurrection stories, in addition to some incredible music. But as I’ve received comments about this the past few weeks I realized–you know, most of the elements of our worship are pretty fixed. There’s nothing that can really be adjusted except…hey, wait a minute. Maybe all these thoughtful critiques are mentioned to me, as I have direct control over one element of the service every week…the sermon!
Pastors, especially Baptist pastors in my observation, are perpetually characterized as universally long-winded because of some of our colleagues who do things like use the phrase, “And, in conclusion…” before continuing with the last forty-five minutes of the sermon. (A microphone is a powerful thing.) But I guess even the most succinct among us sometime go on longer than we should.
I’ll try not to do that today, but I would like to point out that going on and on for far longer than necessary is exactly what Jesus does in the part of the book of John where today’s Gospel reading is found!
The lesson today is from John chapter 14, and it’s part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. It begins back in chapter 13 when the Apostle Peter begins to suspect that something’s up, and asks Jesus in confusion: “Where are you going?” and concludes with Jesus’ prayer and commissioning of his disciples in chapter 17. Four chapters! Throughout all of these chapters Jesus keeps saying, in various ways, “I’m going away, you can’t follow me, don’t be upset.” He never actually uses the phrase “And, in conclusion,” but Jesus was being a bit like one of those Baptist preachers who go on and on (you know those kind!), because it took an awfully long time for him to finish a sermon with a pretty simple message.
Maybe Jesus kept going because as he spoke, all he could see was the look of terror on the disciples’ faces and he wanted to say something–anything–that would comfort them.
The way that the writer of John tells this part of the Gospel story paints the picture of a group of scared, disorganized disciples who, though they’d followed Jesus around for almost three years by now, had little or no understanding of what was actually happening and about to happen in the life of Jesus. They seemed confused (as usual) about what Jesus came to teach them, even in these final moments as Jesus struggled to get one last tutorial in before everything unraveled. They could hear Jesus talking about leaving but they couldn’t seem to get their minds around that reality. The change ahead of them seemed overwhelming and crippling, even.
And they were worried. Panicked, even. You can’t blame them, really.
We are blessed in this congregation with several members who have reached quite notable anniversaries of their own births. For those of us still in the first half of a century, we can look to some of you who are, say 80!, and learn some lessons about living long and well. There are, of course, several key factors that indicate long life, including some of our favorite things like diet and exercise.
But studies on aging show that one of the major predictors of life expectancy is a person’s ability to deal in a healthy way with change. You know, take the curve balls life throws your way with grace and accommodation. Still, when it comes to change, I’d bet that most of us are not fans. Change is hard; it pushes us to grow and stretch in ways that are not always comfortable. Change usually involves loss and certainly some fear. There’s much about any kind of change that is out of our control and, very often, not to our liking. Change is hard.
The disciples were feeling it in those moments, and Jesus could see it. So you can’t really blame him for letting his sermon get out of hand. He was trying to comfort them!
So after going around and around and around, trying to make his point but not seeming to get it across with any level of clarity, Jesus tried one last time. “I’m going away, you can’t follow me, don’t be upset.”
(Panic, panic, panic!)
So Jesus explains to them that they won’t be alone; that an advocate is coming; that God will not abandon them. And then he leaves them with the best blessing he has: peace.
Peace, to cover their confusion. Peace, to soothe their anxiety. Peace, to ease their fear. Peace, to give them courage.
And he’s not just saying it offhand, the way we ask each other how are you? As a greeting but don’t really want to know…. This peace Jesus is giving them in this moment is a real, tangible thing, something divine, a gift from God to hang onto tight when change washed over them like a tidal wave in the days and years ahead and they wondered if they’d ever be able to live faithful lives of discipleship at all, much less keep going for one more day.
When I was 19 years old, I saw something I had never seen before in my entire life. First the first time ever, I saw a woman preach a sermon. As you might guess, that experience changed my life and started me out on a journey that has led me to have control of this very microphone today…! That first woman I ever saw preach became a pastor to me, and when I left that church to go to seminary and begin my own training to someday be a pastor, she called me into her office and said “I want to give you something.”
She handed me a blanket, of all things. It was a brightly colored, scratchy woven woolen blanket with crazy fringe all around the edges. She told me that this was her blessing for me as I went into the future ahead of me. Personally I thought it was kind of a strange “going to seminary” blessing myself, but she explained. In the days ahead when things are hard, when you forget who you are and what you’re called to do, when you question your purpose and your commitment, when you can’t see where God is…this blanket will remind you. Wrap it around you, let it keep you warm, put it right where you can see it to remind you that you’re not alone.
In every seminary apartment, study carrel, and office since then, that scratchy woolen blanket has held a prominent place. Next time you stop by my office, see if you can find it. It’s there, right where I can see it…where I can walk past it and run my hand over it, or lay it on my lap while I study. It’s a tangible little piece of promise I can hang onto. Maybe you have something in your life, given to you by someone you love, that tangibly helps you remember their blessing on your life?
Well, this is exactly what Jesus is doing here in his way-too-long sermon. Peace, he called it. Something tangible. Not like the peace that the world gives, thoughtless and fleeting words spoken off-hand, impermanent and temporary, lacking in substance and heft. No, this is something real, something to hang onto as tight as you can, when the waves of change rush over you and the winds of life blow this way and that…when people you love die and life is shaken to its very core…when you have a hard time remembering who you are and what you believe…when chaos and uncertainty are the order of the day, and when you can’t see what’s right ahead of you.
Even if it took him an extra long sermon to get there, I’m glad he took the time. In the days that followed those disciples’ lives would be ripped apart; they needed a peace that was tangible, something they could walk past and touch, or wrap around themselves in dark moments of doubt and pain. And we do, too.
Peace, Jesus said. My peace I leave with you. Not the kind of peace the world talks about…but real, tangible, abiding peace. Hang onto it; hang on tight. Don’t let your hearts be troubled, and don’t be afraid.
“I’m going away, you can’t follow me, don’t be upset.”
And, in the meantime…peace.
Thanks be to God.