A Sermon Preached
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 25, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
Clinical Pastoral Education is a 10-week course of supervised chaplain service that just about everybody who hopes to become a priest has to fulfill. I served my Clinical Pastoral Education also known as CPE, at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge the summer after my first year of seminary.
I look back on that time with a certain amount of wonder at how we survived it. Our family did not have much money. We lived in a small cinderblock apartment on campus. John and I shared one car. He worked a 50-hour/week schedule that was opposite my 50-hour/week schedule so that we could both be with Grace as much as possible…and also avoid paying for child care. But the timing of it all meant that John had to get into our one car and drive to work in Glenview at the same time that I boarded a bus in Park Ridge for a 45-minute trip home. And for that window of time, our 9-year-old daughter was home alone in our apartment. Yes, it was on the seminary campus, which meant that, yes, if she had an emergency there were others to help. But still. It was not the way I hoped to be a parent, not the way I had hoped that things would unfold.
I’m startled sometimes as I look back on that time. Because after the initial flinch at remembering my cell phone anxiously clutched to my ear as soon as I handed off my pager at the end of the day, I have a second recollection. It’s a passage from scripture, actually found in today’s second reading: “Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you.” It surprises me, because I don’t remember that summer as being especially rich with hope. I remember general frustration and sometimes a little fear, and loneliness, even though I was surrounded by people most of the time. All of that was wrapped up in my desire and responsibility to care for the people entrusted to me at Lutheran General, to care for my family.
One of the marks of CPE is that you have regular group conversations. Actually, you get to have lots of group conversations. During one of those, one of the supervisors shared this passage from the First Letter of Peter as something he walked with in his life and ministry. I didn’t know him very well – he wasn’t my own supervisor…but I watched him over the course of that summer, watched his intuitive, confident, caring manner with people…and I grew to trust him. I grew to find myself walking with that passage in my own life as well.
Too often, I think, hope gets reduced to something it is not. Christian hope is not vapid optimism, to borrow a term from another preacher. It is not greeting card sentimentality. It is not about pretending, with an a clenched jaw and highly enunciated words, that everything is just fine, thank you very much…when it’s clear that much is really, really not.
Christian hope, I believe, is something more substantive than all that. It has muscle and grit. Christian hope is robust and honest and sometimes defiant. It recognizes the truth – that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be. Pain is real, and we can’t be perfect (parents, spouses, friends, whatever…insert role here), we can’t be the fulfillment of all we had imagined, and people we love will sometimes be lost to us, and our hearts will unfailingly break.
And the strength within that hope is that will not be all there is. Because there is more. Because love wins.
And that is the hope – in the midst of experiencing derision from a colleague, and seeing a 13-year-old flown in by helicopter, and visiting a woman whose bones throughout her body were broken in a motorcycle accident, and clutching my cell phone to my ear and waiting for Grace to answer each day at 5pm – that is the accounting of the hope that I hoped to be prepared to give.
That’s the same hope I see Jesus trying to instill in his disciples in today’s gospel passage. This reading from John’s account takes place at the Last Supper. By John’s telling, the Last Supper is also the Passover Meal. The disciples, faithful Jews that they are, have spent this meal remembering who they are as a people: they have remembered God leading Abram out under a sky full of stars, and on to a land that God would show him. They have remembered the People Israel following Moses with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm as they walked to their deliverance on dry land. They have remembered who they are.
And Jesus, knowing and loving them as they are, also knows his time with them is coming to an end. He knows that Judas will betray him. He knows Peter will deny him. And he wants to call these disciples of his into who they will become. He sets aside his robe to do the (for them) embarrassing work of a servant, kneeling to wash their feet. And then he does the (for them) scandalous thing of telling them they have to do the same. He tells them to love each other.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says to them. Not: “I will not leave you.” Because he will, he has to. But this: “I will not leave you orphaned.” I will not leave you without someone who names and claims you, whose role it is to be with and for you, yourself, in this world.
(Can you hear it? He’s offering them hope. Be prepared. Be prepared, disciples, to give an account of the hope that is in you.)
Jesus has reminded his friends of who they are. He has told them that the thing they most dread will be the thing that happens. He calls them to love. And he offers them hope.
This is where the disciples’ hope needs to find stamina and strength, where vapid optimism and greeting card sentimentality will not be sufficient. Because the worst thing they can imagine will be the thing that happens. And the light will go out of the sky, and the curtain of the temple will tear in two, and they will pierce his side, and the Centurion will cry out, too late, “Surely this was the Son of God.” And those three days will be an eternity of grief.
And I worked with people exhausted and hardened by too much work for too many hours in too much pain. And I prayed for a 13-year-old boy flown in by helicopter, in convulsions, after falling farther than doctors thought he could survive. And I visited a woman whose bones were shattered after a motorcycle crash when her boyfriend was drinking. And every day for 45 minutes I held my breath just a little bit until I got home again to my daughter.
And that is not all. There is more. Love wins. Because on the third day, the stone is rolled away from the tomb. And it will be empty of everything but the shroud.
Always. Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you. Always.