I Will Not leave You Orphaned
William Cho is just 6 years old. He was at the Allen mall in Texas last Saturday with his parents and his 3 year old baby brother. They are gone now. William alone remains; a 6 year old without a family.
Three more casualties and one more orphan to add to a list that is now so long our minds cannot contain the names or the places where these shootings have occurred, let alone the grief and devastation they leave behind.
But I can’t stop thinking about William; a little boy whose whole family was taken from him in an instant for no good reason…no good reason at all.
This wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t an act of God. It was an entirely preventable tragedy; a tragedy that is playing out in backyards and theaters, grocery stores and synagogues, schools and hospitals, churches and town fairs, driveways and doorsteps across America, day after day after day, with mind numbing regularity.
And yet as numb as I am, for all the candles I have lit and names I have recited, for all the articles I have read, sermons I have preached, and prayers I have spoken, I can’t stop thinking about William Cho.
William Cho who is just 6 years old and all alone now in this world.
“Orphan,” is such a sad, lonely word. There is so much grief and vulnerability wrapped up in that term. Another child has been orphaned… and what can I say, other than that this has to stop.
And yet you know and I know that it isn’t going to… at least not anytime soon. Which leaves us all feeling grief stricken and vulnerable… but can we come together this morning and agree that we are not without hope?
Broken hearted, yes.
Afraid for ourselves and those we love, yes.
Fed up with the intransigence and fear mongering of politicians, the power and lack of accountability of gun manufacturers, and deeply depressed by the trajectory of violence in our country, Lord have mercy, YES!
But the gospel lesson for today is a profound reminder that we are not powerless - we are not powerless - and that is what I want to talk with you about this morning.
We are not powerless anymore than the disciples were, even as they grappled with the fact that they were about to be orphaned in their own way.
Our reading picks up right where we left off last week, with Jesus explaining to his disciples that he is about to be “betrayed into the hands of sinners”… political and religious leaders who would rather see an innocent person die than lose their hold on power (Matthew 26:45). Sound familiar?
The disciples are understandably upset and grief stricken. Without Jesus to lead them, they’ll be left all alone in this world. And so in our little pericope today, Jesus reassures them, saying: “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Jesus promises that even though he is about to leave them in body, he will come and be with them in an even more profound and intimate way. He promises to be with them not just in spirit but as a spirit, as the Holy Spirit.
The word rendered here in the NRSV as “Advocate” is a powerful translation of the greek word Paraclete. Depending on your version of the Bible you may see it rendered as helper or counselor, but advocate really captures the meaning here, because what we’re talking about is someone who will come alongside you the way your lawyer would in a court of law. Someone who is there to guide you, protect you, and do everything in their power to seek your welfare.
Jesus is reassuring them, saying: yes, I’m about to leave you in body, but through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit I will never stop advocating for you. I will always be with you, because once I return to you in this new form, I won’t just be near you, I will be able to dwell within you. And if I’m in you, God is in you, because the Father and I are one.
Take a moment and let that sink in, because that is the first thing I want you to know. God is within you. All the creative, loving, and life giving force of the universe is flowing in and out of you as regularly as your very breath.
There is divine power within you…loving, life giving, creative power… a power Jesus wants all of his disciples to access and use because the same power that created the world is the very power that can change it….change it for the better.
But that is a quite a thing to grasp and perhaps even harder to explain, which is why Jesus’ words in this gospel can come across as very convoluted with all his I am in you and you are in me and God is in me so God is in you kind of talk. I know it’s hard to keep it straight.
As Susan said in Bible study, “It’s hard to imagine Jesus really talking like this.” But I think what all of this I am in you and you are in me language is trying to convey is the immediacy of God’s loving presence within us all.
When Jesus says things like, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love and reveal myself to them.” Our minds don’t quite know what to do with that kind of immediacy. We naturally want to break it all down in linear fashion: if a then b. If b then c.
If I love Jesus then I will keep his commandments.
If I keep his commandments then God will love me and dwell with me.
But that’s not what is going on here. There is no logical progression or quid pro quo at work here.
Jesus isn’t saying keep my commandments and then I’ll abide with you. He’s saying:
Abide in me, as I already abide in you; love me as I already love you. Live in my love and you’ll naturally find yourself keeping my commandments because that’s what love does. That’s what love looks like in the world.
Friends, God’s love is within us and everything good we do flows forth from that love like a wellspring. Our good works don’t earn our way into God’s love (they flow forth from it. They are natural expressions of it. And the Spirit, the Advocate, the Helper, whom Jesus has called to come alongside us, is here to help keep that love flowing….flowing through us so that we might, advocate for one another (I’m paraphrasing the work of the Saltproject here - https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/5/9/called-alongside-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-6).
So if you want to know God’s love, experience God’s love, feel God’s love, then all you need to do is be loving. Act with love toward someone else and you’ll realize that the love you want is already right here within you.
If you want to know God’s power, experience God’s power, feel God’s power, then all you need to do is use that power on behalf of someone and you’ll realize that the power you want is already right here within you.
But what I really want you to hear this morning is that when we do this, when we let that love and power flow in such a way that we seek the welfare of one another… the people around us actually fare well…or at least begin to fare better.
The world becomes more loving as you pour love into it. Things get better as you work to make them better. It’s like being the change you want to see in the world. The world doesn’t change until we do. Our love, our hope, our desire for a better world is realized as we live it out.
So if you’re feeling despair about gun violence right now - and who isn’t? - ask yourself, when is the last time I actually did something, anything, to end it? When is the last time I donned an orange shirt and went out to stand on a town green with Moms who Demand Action? There was an event just yesterday in Greenfield, but there will be more…and maybe one of them will be organized by you.
When was the last time I sent a donation to Everytown for gun safety or Sandy Hook Promise, wrote a letter to my representative, or maybe the local paper, or asked my pastor to preach about this? I can tell you that this idea of turning mother’s day into a day or repentence, mourning, and prayer around gun violence wasn’t on my radar until Paki Weiland and Peter Kakos brought it to my attention. Their e-mails made a difference.
I have a colleague whose church down in North Carolina sponsored a Safe Surrender event just yesterday where people traded in their guns for gift cards and watched as some of those guns were melted down and reforged by a blacksmith into gardening tools that cultivate life; the modern equivalent of beating swords into plough shares. That’s something we could do too.
I don’t know how many guns they collected yesterday. I know that in spite of their good faith effort, there are still more guns in circulation in our country than there are people. But the number of guns floating around out there did in fact go down yesterday because Land of the Sky UCC in Asheville hosted that event.
My point is that every action matters. Every actions counts. No one thing is going to stop the violence today or tomorrow, but every action moves us closer to the world Julia Ward Howe longed for when she cried out, “disarm!”
Believe me when I say that I know it would be easier to give up. Easier to resign ourselves to this as the new normal. Easier to give in even further to the gun lobby by “hardening” soft targets like churches and schools with even more guns.
But I think there is still time to turn back this tide of violence if we allow the love of God to empower us to do our part. One of the things Jesus communicates to his disciples at that last supper is that because we have the Spirit within us, we are not without hope, which reminded me of a beautiful essay by Margaret Renkl in which she explains why, in spite of the endless stream of bad news around all of this, that she is more hopeful than ever.
Renkl lives in Nashville, where 3 little girls and 3 staff members were killed six weeks ago at the Covenant School. It’s a deep red state where gun reform has heretofore seemed unimaginable. And yet Tennessee is also where thousands of people turned out to support the Democratic representatives Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson, and Justin J. Pearson, who defied their Republican colleagues to demand gun reform from the House floor.
Tennessee is where 8500 Nashvillians - both Democrat and Republican - linked arms to form a human chain that stretched all the way from the hospital where the children were taken after they were shot to the State house where those same Republican senators continue to stonewall.
In her essay, Renkl describes the outpouring of gratitude from her neighbors - again both Republicans and Democrats - who have thanked her for the open letter she wrote to Governor Bill Lee the week after the shooting. This Republican governor has since signed an executive order calling for legislators to strengthen back ground checks, pass red flag laws, and has called for a special session to address gun violence.
"People in power do not willingly hear the objections of those they are subjugating,” she writes:
but sometimes they can be shamed. Sometimes, they can be overwhelmed by public sentiment, and we are fighting here in Tennessee… The gun lobby is counting on Americans to do what we have always done after a tragedy like this. They know we will grieve, they know we will clamor for change, and they know, too, that one day the (the ribbons and signs) will come down and all but the unluckiest among us will move on. But this time feels different.
The polls; the daily demonstrations …the courage of Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin J. Pearson; our governor’s new impulse toward fairer gun laws — it all gives me more hope than I have had in some time. Call that special session, Governor Lee,” she writes. Whatever your party’s legislators might try to argue, an astonishing 82 percent of Tennesseans have your back.” https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/08/opinion/tennessee-gov-lee-gun-reform.html
Friends, as we act in love, we feel the love. As we work for change, change comes. It can be excruciatingly slow, patient work. The arc of the universe is exceptionally long, but Church, it bends toward justice a lot faster when we lend our weight to the effort.
When we love as Jesus loved and advocate for one another the way the Holy Spirit advocates for us, we make the world a little bit safer for everyone around us.
We move ourselves just a little bit closer to a world where little boys like William Cho - William Cho who is just 6 years old - can go to the mall with their families on a Saturday afternoon and all go home together.
Just a little bit closer, but closer all the same. That’s a world I’m willing to work for, and I hope that you will too. Amen