A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on April 27, 2008 (Easter 6, Year A)
Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Annie. Fiction is full of famous orphans; characters who transcend harsh and humble beginnings, seeking love in a variety of ways, and finally finding their purpose in life. Some use unabashed optimism; some use magic. But there’s a glamorization of orphans in books and movies that often belies the reality of those left to navigate the world without parental guidance.
Jesus proclaims in John’s gospel: “I will not leave you orphaned.” Which is why the “spirit of adoption” is on my mind this morning. The original context here is Jesus’ impending death. This passage of John’s gospel is part of what’s known as the Farewell Discourse as Jesus prepares his disciples for life without his physical presence. And so this was a word of comfort to his frightened flock who could not imagine life without their Lord. Beyond their personal sense of loss was the larger question of whether this movement could survive without its leader? Most earthly groups cannot. When a leader dies, groups often fracture and wither away. But then this was not your average organization.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” These words, of course, weren’t just directed to the first disciples. They’re directed to us as well. Because at least as much as for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the rest, it is easy for us to feel orphaned, at times, by God. We don’t have Jesus’ physical presence to guide us. We walk by faith and not by sight. Or as Jesus later says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” So this passage is also directly addressed to future generations of believers – you and me as we struggle with questions about worshiping a God we cannot physically grab hold of.
But there’s also another way in which being orphaned affects all of us. The fact is, we will all be orphaned one day. Our parents will die or are dying or have died. It’s a painful reality of the human condition. Those who have lost one parent are already, in a sense, semi-orphaned. I myself fall under this category as my father died in 1992 of cancer at the age of 52. And between experiencing this and then walking with many others through the loss of a parent, I’ve become convinced that it doesn’t matter at what age you lose a parent; it doesn’t matter how old you are or how full a life your parent has or hasn’t lived. It is still saying goodbye to mom or dad. And that hurts. Because when a parent dies you lose a part of your own identity. The vast history of your growth and development, a wealth of stories many of which you were too young to recall, goes to the grave with your mother or father. And, like a computer that has crashed, much of this is utterly unrecoverable. But it’s more than this. The person who begat you and raised you and loved you cannot share in the ensuing joys and sorrows of your life. And that is painful.
But it’s why the comfort of the knowledge that Jesus will not leave us orphaned is that much more powerful. It is precisely in the moments of hurt and aloneness and grief that Jesus assures us of his presence. And while it doesn’t make it any easier when the pain is still raw, it is a comfort that sustains us with divine love. For God is our divine parent; a parent that will never leave us or forsake us or disappoint us or leave us orphaned. And that promise is the bedrock of our faith.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that “you received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out ‘Abba, Father.’” So we have all been adopted by God and not left orphaned in our despair. But it’s also the use of the Aramaic word “Abba” that highlights our relationship with God. It literally means “daddy” so Jesus reveals for us a new intimacy with our divine parent. And at the time this was a radical new way of relating to God. But it means that regardless of what happens we are never left completely parentless. For it is God, even more than our earthly parents, who knows us intimately. It is God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” And even despite this, we are not left orphaned.
All this talk of orphans can’t help but lead us back to the Carpenter’s Kids program and the 57 AIDS orphans we support as a parish. These children face innumerable spiritual, emotional, and physical challenges. More than we can ever pretend to know. But through our prayers and financial support we can and are making a difference in their lives. We are literally reaching across the globe to help these children attain a quality of life that would otherwise have been impossible. What we are doing is good for them but it’s better for us. Because it allows us to move beyond ourselves and our own self-centeredness to respond to God’s call.
If you are not involved in this program, I encourage you to speak with Fiona, Ken, or Jean. We are in the process of marking our first anniversary of a five-year commitment to these children and there’s no reason we can’t do more for them. I understand additional funds would help us repair an oft-broken water pump and for $750 we can purchase a cow so they can have their morning porridge with milk rather than water – a much more nutritious alternative.
Our participation in this program is one way that we can, as Jesus calls us to do, love him by keeping his commandments. When we give of ourselves in the name of Jesus we are strengthened by his loving presence. And when we are strengthened by his loving presence we know and feel that God will not leave us orphaned.
The sun may or may not come out tomorrow. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ transcends the fleeting moments of hopelessness we encounter along the way. And we know that the God of all love will never leave us orphaned.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008