"Parting Words"
Scripture - John 14:15-21
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Parting words can be memorable. Parting words can be emotional. Parting words can be compelling; especially when they are someone's final words. If you knew that death was looming and realized this was your last opportunity to convey any message you deemed vital, what would you say?

I would want to say to my loved ones: Do you remember when we... Forgive me for the time I... I hope you will never forget...

I preserve a vivid memory of being with a 42 year-old woman who was in her final hours. Her husband, her parents, her two children and I were gathered in their upstairs room where she was lying in bed. Several times over the previous 12 years, she had beaten back the cancer that had taken up residence in her body. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. She was kind and positive and loved to laugh. Ask anyone what they remember about Pat and they will say: Her smile. She was always smiling, always welcoming, and always lifting your spirits.

She was a deeply spiritual person whose faith had been severely tested by her illness. Pat had first been diagnosed when she was a mere thirty years old, with a four year-old son and one year-old daughter.

She was living in Florida at the time and I did not know her. Perhaps she railed against God, "Why me? Why now?" At the time when her life was just beginning to soar, her doctor pronounced a death sentence. No doubt, she waged a fierce battle with her dark night of the soul.

But when I met her five years later, Pat was one of the most optimistic and cheerful people I had ever known. She was a joy to be with and, when you reminded yourself that she was living with cancer that might announce the final act any day, you were astonished by her exuberant spirit. You could not help but ask yourself: Could I be that courageous? Could I be that buoyant?

You have probably known people whose ire toward their illness made them awkward to be around. There was always an edge to their voice and it felt as if they were anxious to pick a fight. I am not blaming them for resenting their lot; I have not walked in their shoes. I'm simply saying that does not describe Pat. She was kind and gentle, and she seemed to have funneled her bitterness into a fierce spirit of determination. She put tremendous energy into living long enough to raise her son and daughter. But she was haunted by the prospect that she might leave them motherless while they were still young.

In this morning's brief passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus is delivering his parting words to his disciples. They have gathered in an upstairs room for what will be their final meal together and Jesus tells them that his end is rapidly approaching. We can only imagine the fear and anxiety that must have filled that room. The one who had turned their world upside down in a beautiful way, giving them a deeper connection to God and a more authentic purpose for living was on the verge of leaving them.

Jesus had become an integral part of their lives during their intense three years together. He had taught them, been patient with them, scolded them and forgiven them. He had healed them, guided them and infused them with a hope they had never known. Jesus and his inner circle of friends had developed incredibly tight bonds. They were brothers. And now that he was on the verge of leaving, he knew they would not only be sad but would panic. The gravity of the moment demanded fitting words.

Pat had been a wonderful mother to her son and daughter. She provided a nurturing home where they knew they were cherished and cared for, but she did not foster a sense of dependence on her. She disciplined them when necessary and taught them to be responsible. She took them to church regularly because she wanted them to develop a strong bond with God and to trust God to help them through difficult times. She knew from experience that was essential. She took them to church to implant in their heart and mind the teachings of Jesus and to introduce them to the truest guide for their path in life. She took them to church to forge deep ties with other people of faith because she knew how important it is to have a community to pick you up when you crash; to carry you when you are too weak to walk and to remind you about the light when you must walk through the valley of darkness.

In the Gospel of John, we overhear the parting words of Jesus when he senses there is little sand remaining in the hour glass. This is his last chance to tell his disciples the crux of what they need to remember. Jesus seizes the moment by reassuring them that they will not be alone. He says, "I will not leave you orphaned." God's Spirit - that he names the "Advocate" - will be with them. Yet, Jesus goes a step further. He says that God's Spirit will not only be with them, but in them. He says, "You know (God's Spirit), because he abides with you, and he will be in you." Explaining it another way, Jesus continues, "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you."

What exactly does Jesus mean when he says that through God's Spirit, he will be in us? Is he talking about a transcendent, mystical experience? Is he speaking metaphorically?

I do not think he is referring to an altered state of consciousness; nor do I think he is using a figure of speech. I think he is referring to that special depth of connection between two people who are extremely close and whose lives are so intertwined that it is not always possible to distinguish where one person ends and the other begins. It is like seeing in a child the features, mannerisms and thoughts of her parent. We say, "She has your nose and eyes, but she has more of you than physical features. She walks like you do, she sounds like you and she thinks like you."

When Jesus talks about being in us, he is talking about an internal influence that has become an intrinsic part of us, like the couple who has been together for so long that they have acquired a number of each other's characteristics. Camilla and I are two separate physical beings, but it does not make sense to me to say that we are two totally independent people because so much of her is in my heart, my mind and my soul. She is in me.

If we allow God's Spirit to seep into our soul - if we do not erect internal barriers to guard against change - God's spirit of love which is compassion, kindness, respect, patience and generosity - can transform us into a more loving and Christ-like person.

In his final hours with them, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not leave them orphaned. God will send the Advocate to be with them, and through God's Spirit, Jesus will remain with them and be in them.

It is important to keep in mind, that in today's passage Jesus was talking to his disciples, but not only those who sat around the table for his last supper with them. The author of this gospel was writing to a community of believers who lived 60 - 70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. There might still be a handful of people who had actually seen Jesus, but most of them surely had not. John was writing to his community near the end of the first century and to countless generations ever since. His words are addressed to you and me.

The evening Pat died, she was amazing lucid up until the end. She told her children, that they would never know the deep love that she carried for them and that death would not end her love for them. She told them she would be in heaven, continuing to love them and praying for them. She instructed them to remain close to God and to never stop loving each other. She told them the most important thing in the world they could do was to love others.

Her parting words mirrored the parting words of Jesus. In our passage, Jesus says, "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me." And then, a few verses later, Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:2)

Pat stopped breathing around seven o'clock that evening. It was on the day - the very day - of her daughter's 13th birthday. One of the last things Pat said was to Tracey. She said, "Forgive me for dying on your birthday."

In a surreal moment, half an hour after she had died and all of us had shed many tears, Pat's husband stepped out of the room for a few minutes and then reappeared with a birthday cake. He sat the cake on Pat's bed a few inches beneath her feet and said that Pat had made him promise to celebrate Tracey's birthday no matter what happened.

With tears streaming down and voices quivering, we sang "Happy Birthday." It was the worst rendition of "Happy Birthday" any group has ever sung. And through our tears, we laughed about how awful we sounded.

To some this birthday celebration in the room with her dead mother might sound bizarre or even profane, but I promise you it was a sacred moment. Pat had drawn us together in a tight bond of love and she had shown us numerous times the power of love. Within her body were cancer cells that could not be conquered, but there was also a heart full of love that could not be quelled.

I came to realize that Pat's parting words were not the syllables that came out of her mouth on her final day. Her parting words were in the way she had lived her life - the impact she had made on us and the memory of her we hold dear.

You and I may have the opportunity to share final thoughts with those dear to us, but we are speaking our parting words each day by the manner in which we are living. I pray that our lasting impression will be one of love and courage and hope.

Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

In the midst of this congregation of saints gathered to worship, we come to you, O God, knowing that you created us, you sustain us, and that you call us to live in peace and love. On this weekend when we remember those who have given their lives in service of this nation, we give you thanks for selfless acts of heroism and bravery, and for those who put the welfare of others above personal safety and comfort. We remember with gratitude those who have answered the call to duty faithfully. Comfort those who grieve the death of loved ones, give strength to those who have returned home from battle with scarred bodies or spirits. Especially this weekend as we reflect on the cost of war, we ask for wisdom and hope and trust enough that we might make peace. Help us to make a world where weapons are laid down, where distrust becomes acceptance, where enemies become friends. Let us have the courage to do the things that bring peace, solve conflicts, and create and sustain life.

We come today lifting up to you those who have been kidnapped, and those who fear for missing loved ones. We ask that the comfort of your love and presence be a blanket of hope to all who are frightened or in captivity. And, we pray for those who mourn the deaths from an act of senseless violence in California. Be present, O God, in those hurting places and hurting hearts.

Cancer, dementia, stroke, heart disease - we walk with these medical issues, struggle with them, and at times, are powerless to change their effects or their course. But through it all, send hope, send love, send care. Through it all, be a source of strength and comfort.

We pray this day for those seeking to discern your will - for those contemplating career or job changes, for those who prepare for a move to a new location, for those who struggle to embrace truths of their lives hidden before. O God, give guidance and support.

We ask for your blessing upon the building of a guest house for visiting doctors, pastors and linguists for the Bethel Synod in Pokwo, Ethiopia. For John McFarland and the other volunteers who are constructing it, we pray for safety and a sense of community. Once completed, we ask that the house will be a place of rest and renewal for those who stay in it. And we ask for your guiding and supporting hands to be with missionaries around the globe, but most especially this day we pray for Jeff and Christi Boyd, John and Gwenda Fletcher, and for Leslie Vogel and Amanda Craft.

As we order our days, O God, help our words and our actions speak your love. Let what we do and how we act, testify to your inclusive love. Let the ways we spend our time and our money, be a living witness to your grace.

We ask these things, remembering the prayer which Jesus taught, saying:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.