Easter 5A John 14: 1-14 Absence of God
Holy Spirit, Gulf Shores May 14, 2017 Mother’s Day
“I go to prepare a place for you.. so that where I am there you may be also.”/ Jesus’ followers are confused. As we try to understand what it was like for the disciples, let’s imagine on this Mother’s Day that we are back in the house we grew up in maybe at age five or six. We are playing on the floor with a brother or sister or best friend, only to look up and see our Mother and Father or older sibling putting on their coats. Children always have three questions. “Where are you going? Can we go? Then who will stay with us?’/ Jesus, in the role of a parent or older sibling, responses, “I am going to my Father and your Father. You cannot come now; you can come later./ But in the next verses he says, “I will not leave you orphans.” I will send another friend, another helper who will never leave, but who will stay with you forever.”//
The disciples knew Jesus was more than the son of Mary and Joseph, more than a carpenter. His character, his words, how he spoke, his work, the way he behaved, /made them believe that when they were in his presence they were closer to the presence of God.
He didn’t shine in the night, he didn’t dress in unusual clothes, he didn’t have a strange look on his face, he didn’t go around saying a lot of religious things all the time. It is just who he was and what he did and the way he related to people that caused them to say, “He is connecting us to God.”
I am sure each of you has known a person like that, a person who, when you are in his or her presence, you think better thoughts, live a better life, reflect on God, become more devotional, more spiritual. Perhaps your mother was like this. Multiply that by many million times and you have Jesus of Nazareth.
The painful side of seeing God in Jesus is that just as Jesus came into the world, he had to return to God. During his brief life here on earth, he bonds with many people, family, disciples, Mary, Martha, Lazarus. Toward the end of his life, he tells them, “I don’t call you servants anymore, I call you ‘friends.’” The plain fact is that the deeper the bond, the more painful the absence will be.
All the years I taught medical students, residents, and fellows, I never liked graduations because of the hypocrisy of saying, “Congratulations on finishing.” Even after 40 years, I still miss many of them. I teared up and felt the same loss at each Cathedral School, and now the Day School graduation in Little Rock./ The deeper the bond, the deeper the pain.
Two young girls are friends, next-door neighbors since they are three. They play together, sleep in each other’s bed, eat at each other’s table. Now they are ten. One of the girl’s parents is transferred to Dallas. Suddenly the ugliest thing in the world, a big moving van is out front hauling them away./ The deeper the bond, the more painful the absence./
I also know that people in a congregation like Holy Spirit can have such a deep bond that they miss each other when they are absent. On Saturday night, as I say my prayers, I picture the congregation where I am serving in my mind and visualize where everyone sits. On Sunday morning when I look out, if this one or that one is absent, I assume they must be sick and try to call during the week to see how they were feeling. I sincerely believe that Christian people have a bond so deep that if one person is absent, others feel something missing. I also realize that church sometimes is something people just fit in among the many things in their lives, and somehow our sense of bond and community slips away. Even so on Sunday morning as I look out and see that such and such a person is not here, that old feeling comes back. It’s like being a child;/ the deeper the bond, the greater the pain.
This pain of absence is intensified if the absence is death, as in the case of Jesus. Death makes absence seem final. Death does not care about age. You do not have to be elderly to face death. Death comes in the rain and wind of our violent Arkansas storms and tornadoes and causes trees to crash on young mothers and children and rivers to flood. Death whirls in the hurricanes that love to visit this Pleasure Island,/
Absence is also more painful when we consider the way someone dies. Students are killed in their classrooms in Jonesboro, Littleton, Sandy Hook, Blacksburg. Senseless. I think of Jesus, snatched away from his friends and family. They strip him naked as vulgar-mouthed soldiers, unbelievers walk by and mock him.
Jesus knew the depth of pain created by absence, so in John 15 he becomes a counselor, mother, father, older sibling to his friends. He is trying to soften the blow, trying to get them ready./ He says, “I know I’m leaving. Listen. Trust in God and trust in me. I am going, it is true but am going to prepare a place for you, so that we will all be together forever. I will also send another counselor that will guide and help you and will never ever leave you.” Jesus is trying to get them and us ready for his absence, but they and we are still confused,/ still asking questions. “We don’t know where you are going or how you are going to get there. We don’t understand anything you are saying. Just show us God, and we will be satisfied.”/
It didn’t work; it never works at the time. Jesus tries to get them ready, but you can talk and talk and talk and there is still the pain. Jesus leaves his disciples and they feel his absence keenly and painfully. It just never seems to work until later./
My experience is that each of us has felt God’s absence, that feeling that God has withdrawn from us, that feeling that God is no longer close to us. The Psalms are full of prayers to God, “Lord, don’t turn your back on us. Don’t hide your face from us.” The people in the Hebrew Bible have felt it. Jesus knows it. “My God, my God why have your forsaken me?”// Is it possible that in times that God seems absent and we feel all on our own/ that we have an opportunity to use and develop strength God has already given us?
I know of a handicapped child with no arms. He tells the story of how his mother always dresses him. One day, she puts his clothes in the middle of the floor and says, “Dress yourself.” He says, “I can’t dress myself.” She says, “You have to dress yourself.” He kicks, screams, yells at his mother, “you don’t love me anymore.” After hours of struggle he gets the clothes on. As he opens his door, he sees his mother on the other side of the door/ sobbing./
I don’t believe that God grows distant from us. My experience is that God is always on the other side of the door./ I do believe that sometime we feel distance, but God is still there.//
How do we manage this feeling and live with the perceived experience of distance from God? I think it is a matter of memory. Remember the spirit filled times, what you have been taught. Remember when you felt God’s presence, perhaps here in this church. Remember the liturgy, the worship, the Eucharist. Remember your baptism, the baptism of your child, or grandchild. Remember your Christian friends. Remember the old songs, familiar prayers that perhaps your mother or grandmother taught you./ I remember an old friend who lived with cancer for over twenty years telling me how he would recite the Te Deum, a song of praise from Morning Prayer to feel God’s presence and live through unfavorable medical reports. /
It grieves me to think of people, especially our young, who do not know a hymn, a single scripture verse, who have never sat next to the strong shoulder of a believing man or woman. How will they ever make it? You see, what we do here on Sunday in case you are wondering, is making memories. What happens today will be the food we will have on those difficult days, food for us, and food to share with those who do not have these memories. But it will be enough. This is Jesus’ promise. It will always be more than enough.
Fred Craddock, “The Absence of Christ,” Cherry Log Sermons, pp. 54-59.
Fred Craddock, “More Than Anything in the World,” in The Preaching of Jesus, William Brosend, pp. 64-67.