Sermon text: John 14: 15-21
What’s the hardest part of doing a funeral?
That’s a fairly common question that I get, and the answer often surprises people. While there is certainly grief over the loss of the person who has died, that is not the answer, even though that’s the answer people assume. The hardest part of a funeral isn’t the sermon, or the eulogies, or the readings, or the prayers, or the graveside service. No, those pieces can all be prepared and practiced. The hardest part of a funeral is guessing how many people will stay for the funeral meal.
Yes, that’s the hardest part because that is the biggest unknown. That’s what gives me and the kitchen crew anxiety. It’s always an educated guess. Get it wrong and you’ve either got a mountain of food leftover or you’re doing your best to imitate the Feeding of the 5,000. Once again, everything else at a funeral can be done regardless of the number of people, but the unknown of the attendance, that unknown is the hardest part.
We do not do well with the unknown. The unknown scares us, makes us anxious, and reminds us that control is, at best, an illusion. No matter how hard we plan, no matter what dreams we have, the future will always contain a measure of the unknown.
Back in seminary, the biggest day of unknowns was the day we received our regional assignments when we were seniors. The United States is divided into nine regions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and even though we were able to list preferences about where we would like to live and serve, the Conference of Bishops could choose to send us anywhere in the country—from New England to the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest to the frozen tundra of the Midwest. It was one big unknown, and you were about to spend, at the very least, the next several years wherever you landed, and you had little control. There were a lot of tears shed that day, tears of joy and tears of sorrow.
The disciples are in an unknown place. In our gospel lesson Jesus is giving his farewell address—this is Maundy Thursday, just before his arrest—and Jesus’ disciples have no clue ofwhat is about to happen. Everything that will occur, Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection…all these events will wreck their plans. God is about to blow their minds about what is possible. They are entering into an unknown that they didn’t know existed.
Jesus stands before them and promises that even though they venture into this unknown future, and even though he will not be with them, they do not step into the breach alone. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth.”
Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. In this Gospel the word is Paraclete, quite literally “the one who is called alongside.” A helper, comforter, encourager, and intercessor. With this Holy Spirit of God Jesus lets the disciples know that they can confidently walk into the future without him standing there. They will not be orphaned. Essentially, no matter the unknown that towers above us or looms in front of us, Jesus tells us that we do not enter it along, but with the Advocate at our side, guiding us on the path God has set before us.
That is a promise we all need to be reminded of in these days. Perhaps the hardest part of this pandemic has been the litany of unknowns that we are struggling to face:
- How long will this last?
- Will things get better?
- Will things get worse?
- What will happen to our loved ones?
- What will happen to our economy?
- How will I pay these bills?
- When will I finally get to worship in church, or fly to a vacation spot, or eat a burger in a restaurant, or go to the gym, or see kids in school, watch sports on TV?
We have hopes and wants, but we do not know…and that terrifies us. No matter if you think we should reopen yesterday or shut it all down for another few months, our reactions are all driven by that great unknown. We are all reacting from that fear.
And if it wasn’t this collective tragedy in our lives it would be something else. I would hazard a guess and say that many people have a double whammy that they’re facing, COVID-19 AND some other unknown of life.
In these moments, Jesus’ words reverberate in my ears. I will not leave you orphaned. Jesus’ incarnation in the flesh was but a glimpse of how God desires to journey with us through all of life’s unknowns. And now we fully experience that divine presence through the Advocate, through the Holy Spirit poured out on us.
So together, with the support of one another, and with the support of the Holy Comforter, let us step one foot in front of the other and explore these untrodden paths of life. AMEN