Texts: Acts 17:22-31 ; Psalm 66:8-20 ; 1 Peter 3:13-22 ; John 14:15-21
In the name of Jesus, who loves us. Amen.
As a child, weekends seemed so much longer than they do now, and held so many opportunities for fun. Coming home from school on Friday afternoon I generally had a plan for the weekend, an invitation from a friend for an overnight or something similar. All I had to do was get my parents’ approval.
Assuming I wasn’t grounded, or in some kind of trouble, the first question my folks had to ask was, “will there be a parent there?” It was an exasperating question. It was clearly an implicit attack on my trustworthiness. “Will there be a parent there,” suggested that I and my friends were not to be trusted alone. That we might leave a stove top on and burn a house down, or something even worse. That we might get into the kind of trouble children are notorious for – unsupervised house parties with loud music and alcohol. “Will there be a parent there” was the gateway question I had to pass through in order to arrive at a weekend with my friends.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I began to realize that this question had very little to do with me and my trustworthiness, and much more to do with my parents’ sense of duty and responsibility. It took many years of perspective, many miles of rocky road along the journey, before I could understand that my folks’ question, “will there be a parent there,” came out of their deep love for me and their sense of utter responsibility. Having known me when I was barely bigger than their two hands cupped together, my parents had been conditioned to try and shield me from all the dangers of life. When I was not in their sight they needed to know that I was under the watchful eye of someone they could trust. They needed to know that another careful, responsible adult was nearby to look after their most precious treasure. Their child.
Due to an unusual and unforeseen confluence of events we are going to be hearing a lot about parents and children for three weeks in a row. In today’s readings we hear Paul talking to the Athenians about God as our parent. “Since we are God’s offspring,” he says, we should not imagine God to be like an object – something we might create out of our own imaginations. Instead, like a parent, God calls us to repent and turn away from that which harms us. In the gospel of John we hear Jesus speaking to his followers on the night of his arrest, on a night when he knew he would soon die. There he not only refers to God as Father, but seems to imagine himself as a parent to his disciples. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he says.
Next week we will join with Lutherans around the country for a commemoration that started here in Chicago over ten years ago, at Bethel West, called “Rachel’s Day.” Drawing its name from the passage in Jeremiah 31, Rachel’s Day is a moment for us to pause and commemorate, to grieve, the loss of children in our community. A day when we join with God in viewing all the children of the earth as our children.
Then, the following week, a strange thing happens when Mother’s Day and Pentecost fall on the same Sunday. Pentecost, which falls fifty days after Easter, is rarely this early – so these two Sundays almost never join up on our calendar. We will hear the melody of God’s rushing winds and the good news proclaimed in every language set to the counterpoint of Mother’s Day, and we will consider how the movement of the Holy Spirit – rushing out to claim the whole world – brings us back to Paul’s words to the Athenians this morning: “For ‘in [God] we live and move and have our being’… ‘for we too are [God’s] offspring.’”
With so many weeks in a row talking about God and ourselves as parents and children, I want to comment briefly to say that this can be confusing for many of us for a number of different reasons. For some of us, parents left us early on. They left because of divorce, or addiction, or war, or death, and we did not know them the way people around us seem to know their parents. When we hear these passages we may be reminded of a parent who was gone instead of hearing about a parenting God who is faithfully near.
For others, parents may have been present too often with violent words, or judgments, or fists. Hearing God described as a father or a mother can be terrifying if the only experience we have of parents is a fearful one. Those memories, or still lived realities, can get in the way of our ability to hear about a parenting God who wants to shield us from violence and who liberates us when we are trapped in prisons of fear and abuse.
To call God our parent is to use a word too small to describe a God too big. It is one image among many for God. Even those who have grown up with strong bonds of love and protection know that parents are full of flaws, and those of you who are parents yourselves know this better than most. In fact, it is parents who are most aware of their limitations and who need to hear that God is also present with their children, that God is also concerned with the wellbeing of their most precious treasures.
I never saw this as clearly as the night I first sat with a family while their infant child died. I was in my first couple of months as an intern chaplain at the Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. It was late at night, and a child who had been in the intensive care unit was rushed suddenly to surgery. The parents, who had been at the crib, called in their relatives and I sat with the extended family in waiting room as we prayed for their child.
In the waiting room this child’s father told me that things had happened so quickly they hadn’t even had time to baptize their child. “Will God still take him home if he hasn’t been baptized,” this parent asked me. Faced with his powerlessness to do anything to save his child, the only question remaining for this father as he prepared to lose his son was, “will there be a parent there?” Will God be the parent I cannot be? Will God care for and protect my child in the life to come, since I cannot care for and protect my child in the here and now?
In moments like that, when the questions we are asked are too large for any answers we can give, we find strength and comfort in the promises of God. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever…I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
When I read this passage from John, I’ve usually imagined how comforting it would have been for members of the early church to hear that before his death Jesus was assuring those he loved that they would be cared for. For the early Christians, who faced rejection at the temple and persecution by the state, to hear these words
“the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you”
would have been both righteous vindication and deep comfort.
But reading the passage this year, attending to Jesus’ own identification with God as parent to his followers, I’m struck by how similar Jesus’ assurances are to the question that father asked me in the waiting room. Although they don’t understand it yet, Jesus is preparing to leave them. He has cared for them, guided them, taught them, fed them. Jesus has parented them, and now he is leaving them. Jesus, in all his humanity, wants to know “will there be a parent there” after he is gone.
And then Jesus, in all his divinity, answers the question. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
A parent’s love is a primal force. As we will continue to hear over the next two Sundays, God is aware of the suffering of any of God’s children. We here in Chicago have been subjected to a
n intolerable amount of violence, and especially violence against children, since this school year began. We the church, the body of Christ, a sign of God’s parenting presence in the world, have a calling to live into Jesus’ promise, “I am coming to you.” That calling is larger than any of us can manage alone, and for that reason especially we draw strength from the assurance that we will have an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the abiding presence of God in us, to be with us forever.
To be continued…