Easter 7C Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Empty Spaces Filled By Love

John 17:20-26
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
I took a picture of David with my phone when he and I were at the Pirates game last Sunday afternoon to send to his cousin Allison.  Over the course of the baseball game, Allison kept sending gloating text messages to us from her perch in Northern Va. because her team, the Washington Nationals, was pretty much clobbering the Pirates.  So I sent her the picture of David, who had a big grin on his face despite the fact that the Bucs were losing badly.  I didn’t really think too much of it.  I have like 8 million pictures of David wearing his Pirates gear at PNC Park.
Later, when were home, I took a second look at the picture of David on my phone and thought, oh-my-goodness… 

Then I took another, closer look at my smiling boy and realized: “That’s my dad.” 
My brother and I both have a couple black and white photos taken of my dad when he was young, so I have a pretty good idea of what he looked like when he was around David’s age.  But more than the photos, there’s another kid in our family who really, really does bear a strong resemblance to my father and has ever since she was a baby. That would be “Little Miss Smarty-Pants the Nats are Winning” Allison.  For years, everyone in my family has agreed that my kids take after my husband’s side of the family, and my brother’s younger daughter, Erin, takes after her mother.  But Allison has always been the only one of us who resembles my father.
Until last Sunday, when I spent a long time staring at that photo of David, taken in one small moment in time.  Neither my brother nor I have any clear memories of my father as he died when we were very young.  But we have this enduring reminder of him…in Allison and David.  Though the empty space my father left remains, my brother and I are still somehow connected to him by heart in these children we love.
We have another story of departure and empty spaces and family resemblances in today’s text from John.   I’m going to begin by admitting that it is so easy to get bogged down in John’s language.  So much of it is metaphor — and repetitive metaphor at that.  Of all the gospels, John’s is the most thickly theological.  There are fewer stories and parables because John tends to pack Jesus’ teachings into long discourses.
So where are we in John’s gospel today?  Well, we are near the end of a long farewell speech that Jesus gives to his disciples right after he washes their feet at the last dinner they have together on Maundy Thursday.  Judas has gone scampering out of the room to do what he has to do, and Jesus begins to speak like a man who knows that his time on earth is limited and thus feels compelled to offer final words of wisdom to his beloved friends.  So Jesus begins to talk; for three whole chapters he goes on and on.  The language Jesus uses is repetitive in the sort of way we are repetitive with our children when we leave them alone at home for the very first time.  “Do you know our phone number?  Do you know what number to dial if there’s a fire?  We’ll be home by 9 o’clock, do you know where the phone is?  Do you know our phone number?  Do you want me to write down our phone number?” 
In his final discourse, Jesus speaks to the disciples out of the knowledge that he’s going to be leaving them on their own for an unknown or at least undisclosed period of time, and Jesus wants to be certain they’ll be ready to carry out the work he has begun when he is no longer with them.
After three chapters of instruction directed to the disciples, Jesus turns his attention to God. Then Jesus begins to pray.  First for himself, then for the disciples in the room with him, and then – Jesus prays for us.  You and me.   The text we’ve read today in verses 20 – 26 is Jesus’ prayer for all the believers to come into the future.
And what is Jesus’ instruction and desire for us?  Jesus prays that we may all be one so that the world may see God’s claim on our lives and God’s love for us – a love as powerful as God’s love for Jesus, powerful enough to fill the empty space left by him and bind us to one another.   A love that characterizes God’s relationship with the Son.   A love so deeply woven into our lives that the world will be able to recognize Jesus in us.  That is Jesus’ final earthly prayer for us – that his future believers may become completely one so the world will recognize Christ when they look at us. 
Jesus prays for unity on a night in which things are going to quickly fall apart for the disciples.  Jesus prays for oneness in the shadowed hours of a violent, wrenching separation in which the disciples will be scattered like dust by terror and remorse.  It is this tragic loss that will to lead to denials, doubt, and the overpowering fear the disciples experience in Jesus’ absence. 
Forty days after Easter, there is another loss to come for the disciples with Christ’s ascension when the disciples truly will no longer see the risen Lord as they have seen him.  The ascension of Jesus is more peaceful than the violent disruption of a state execution, but it is no less sorrowful and no less of a loss for the friends who watch.  In the text from Acts that describes Christ’s ascension, the disciples are not nearly ready to see him go; they want him to restore Israel and do not understand how he can be leaving them so soon with things in the world still such a mess (Acts 1:1-11).
Today is the Sunday between the disappearance of Jesus into the clouds and the roaring arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  It is an in-between, liminal time, but it is in this space that we may listen closely to Jesus’ final prayer for us, and remember what he prayed for on our behalf — that we may be held together by the oneness of love, that we may be bonded to each other by a crazy, superglue kind of love that can not and never will leave us alone.

To be Christ’s follower is to be part of a greater whole.  We do not do this on our own.  According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians.  We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not.  We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not.  To be a part of this body of Christ is to be a part of a community, a part of the whole and we are stuck with one another, whether we like it or not.   Paul makes this ideal of oneness clear in I Corinthians 12 when he writes:

20…there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Cor. 12:20-26)
In a world that is torn apart by bitterness and division, we as God’s people are to be so connected by love that we cannot be mistaken for anything else but the Body of Christ. 
Naomi Shihab Nye, an American poet born of an American mother and a Palestinian father, writes about how love fills in empty spaces, in a story from Albuquerque airport:
“Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:  ‘If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.’  Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.  An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
‘Help,’ said the flight service person. ‘Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.’
 I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.  The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, ‘No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.’ We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it, why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her?
This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies–little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts–out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate.  To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
 This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”[1]
The empty space left by crucifixion is filled by the glory of resurrection.  The empty space left by ascension is filled by the love of the Holy Spirit.  This emptying and filling happened in the Albuquerque airport just as it happens in our lives – almost always by surprise; in varying dimensions of pain; when we open ourselves to one another and find out that we the love is far stronger than anything that can possibly divide us.
Nearly 80 years ago, a little girl named Betty Jane Robertson became a member of this congregation by professing her faith in Jesus Christ.   According to her beautifully typed resume that her cousin gave me on Friday, BJ joined this church in 1934.  I have been trying to wrap my mind around that – I wasn’t born in 1934.  Even my mother wasn’t born in 1934.  For more than 90 years, BJ was a part of this community.  And now she isn’t.  Her spirit and her love will be with us for a very long time, I am certain of that.  But her death leaves with another empty space.  An empty pew.  An empty seat in the choir. 
I understand how hard it is to look around you every Sunday and see all of these empty spaces where your friends and your family used to be in this sanctuary.  And when you leave here today, you may have more empty spaces.  You may be dealing with the empty space of where something else used to be – a job, good health, a spouse, a friend.  The very fact that it’s Mother’s Day may remind you of an empty space of where your mother used to be or where a child used to be or still isn’t.  All of these losses open up and leave great gaping holes in our lives.
But what will always rush in to fill the gaps is the power and love of our oneness in Christ and our unity with one another – in grief, in disagreement, in despair and even in great joy.  Our oneness comes on the wings of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost which stitches us together.  Our oneness in Christ reaches across these empty spaces, anointing us with powdered sugar, with laughter, with love, and even with one another’s tears.
This morning, I’m going to invite you all to come down front together, into these front pews.  Let us leave no empty space between us, not on this day.  Please bring a hymnal with you.
Let us have a moment of silence to remember those we miss.  Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and family.  And BJ.
Let us pray for our oneness as a congregation.
Let us pray for the church everywhere that we may be united in Christ and in our unity show the love of Christ.
And now let us sing together, “Blest Be The Tie That Binds.”
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4” from Honeybee.