A sermon on John 14:15-21. Terrible pun on paraclete owed to Dr. Richard Carlson.
Easter 6, Year A
May 25, 2014
Marcy was a very adult person. Or at least that’s how she liked to think of herself.
Perhaps she was only 13 years old according to the standard measure of time, but she prided herself on possessing all the maturity of a self-sustaining adult. She made her bed every morning. She always did her homework. She managed to balance school with a volunteer job at the pet shelter. She was on the debate team, and once took down a full-fledged senior who, rumor had it, gave up his dream of going into law school after losing to a freshman.
She definitely had it more together than her 10-year-old twin brothers, and she had ample opportunity to reflect on that every morning as she made her way to their shared bathroom over a veritable minefield of Lego blocks that had not been put away as instructed.
Marcy was setting the table for dinner one night when her mother said, “Marcy, your Dad and I want to talk to you about something. We’re planning a night out for our anniversary, and we’d like you to watch the boys for us.”
Well, Marcy’s heart leapt even as her stomach sank. This was clearly a gesture of respect from her parents—a recognition of her responsible ways and adult attitude. It meant a great deal to her. She wanted to prove to them that she could handle the job.
The only problem was that the job was watching her two little brothers, who were even at that moment taking advantage of her mother’s momentary inattention and trying to glue the cat to the ceiling.
Marcy swallowed a tide of rising anxiety and smiled. “Sure!” she said. “I’d be glad to help.”
Her mother smiled gently. “It’s OK if you’re nervous,” she said. “Your dad and I will be just a phone call away. And Mr. Perry will be right next door if you need him.”
Mr. Perry was their 70-year-old neighbor. In his youth he had played shortstop for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and had shown a lot of promise before a knee injury ended his sports career. He liked to yell at ESPN and wear cleats all the time.
“And,” her mother continued. “You know all the rules of the house, and so do your brothers. All you have to do is make sure they follow them.”
Twenty-four hours later—a mere 90 minutes after her parents had left the house for their anniversary dinner—Marcy swore that she would never, ever have children of her own.
When her parents had left, the three of them—Marcy, Fred, and Jason—had been eating their dinners at the table, peacefully. Quietly. But no sooner had the front door closed than Jason declared that he hated tuna, while Fred claimed that onions made him barf, and despite Marcy’s threats to withhold dessert, they had raced from the table and into the rest of the house.
It wasn’t just that they were 10. It wasn’t just that they were boys. It wasn’t just that they were twins, and seemed to have strange telepathic powers when it came to wreaking havoc. It was that there were two of them.
They had the strategic advantage. If they separated, she couldn’t keep an eye on both at once. If they stayed together, they united their freakish powers of chaos into a sugar-powered whirlwind that Marcy could not tame. She’d spent the first hour and a half tracking them, stalking them, putting them in time out after time out, but one twin would run off as soon as she went looking for the other.
It wasn’t until Marcy smelled burning, and ran into the kitchen to find some spilled macaroni slowly blackening on the stovetop while Jason watched in fascination, that she lost all hope of controlling the situation. She’d yelled Jason out of the kitchen, shut off the beeping fire alarm, cleared away the macaroni, and now sat at the kitchen table in a posture of determined damage control, armed with a can of Lysol, a roll of duct tape, and a fire extinguisher.
Suddenly she heard a knock at the kitchen door. Praying fervently that it wasn’t the police, Marcy went to answer it and saw that it was Mr. Perry from next door. She sucked in her breath. What if he saw the chaos inside and told her parents how badly she’d done?
As if reading her mind, Perry shouted, “Let me in, kid. Seems like you need a relief pitcher.”
Marcy opened the door, and in Perry came, carefully wiping his cleats on the doormat outside. He raised his head and sniffed. “Whoa,” he said. “Smells like that time that Lousy Larry the food vendor used too much oil in the peanut roaster. Stadium smelled for a solid week.”
“Sorry, Mr. Perry,” Marcy said. “Just a little accident from earlier. All taken care of.” She tried to smile.
Mr. Perry looked at her closely. “Kid,” he said. “You’re an ace, so don’t hear this like I came in to send you to the showers, ‘cause that’s not my intent. But there comes a time in every inning when you gotta retire the side, and…I think you hit it.”
“Oh, no!” said Marcy, trying to smile more brightly. “We’re fine. Just fine.” She winced as the sound of something breaking came from the next room. It sounded like a lamp.
Mr. Perry patted her hand and said gently, “They got you on the ropes, kiddo.”
Marcy ruffled. “I can handle it!”
Mr. Perry said, “This ain’t a game for solo artists, kiddo. We all need a little help from our team, at least sometimes.”
“But my mom left me in charge,” said Marcy, hearing even as she said it how whiny it sounded.
“She left you in charge, kid, but she didn’t leave you orphaned, now did she? Now, I got an idea. It’s the kiddoes, bedtime, ain’t it?”
“A half-hour ago,” said Marcy hollowly.
“Why don’t you go in there and tell them that it’s time for bed.”
“They won’t listen!”
“Sure they will. You’re their big sister!”
“But I’m not Mom, and that’s who they listen to.”
“Well, you just tell ‘em what their mom tells ‘em, and we’ll see what happens. And after, I’ll give you a hand with the clean-up. Let me just grab some supplies from my house.” Mr. Perry went toward the door and nodded encouragingly at Marcy.
Marcy sighed, and turned with dread toward the living room. The thought crossed her mind that it might be easier to just build a barricade at the kitchen door and wait for her parents to get home. But she steeled herself, and strode into the family room.
It was as bad as she expected. The boys had decided to build a fort, and so the room was now dominated by a misshapen tent of blankets held up by what had been their mom’s knitting project. The twins had built the tent around the TV, and she could hear the unmistakable theme music from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill coming from under there.
She stepped carefully around a broken lamp, took a deep breath, and lifted one wall of the tent.
“HEY!” shouted Fred and Jason in earsplitting unison.
“It’s time for bed,” Marcy said.
“It’s 9:30. You were supposed to be in bed by 9. Mom said.”
“MOM’S NOT HERE!”
“Well, I’m here!” Marcy yelled back. “And it might not be the same, but Mom told us what she wants us to do, and we are going to DO it!”
To her astonishment, the boys didn’t say anything back. They just looked at her with huge eyes and something—Marcy thought—that might have looked just a little like…respect?
“Now, chop chop! Are these the sheets from off your bed? Take them down right now and go put them back. Then PJs. Clothes in the hamper. Teeth-brushing. Face-washing. And pick up the Legos in the hallway. Lights are going out in ten minutes! Let’s GO!”
The two boys scampered—positively scampered from the tent, grabbed their sheets, and hared off toward their bedroom.
Marcy sighed with relief, and turned to see Mr. Perry leaning in the doorway, grinning. And carrying in his hands a great…big…Louisville slugger.
Mr. Perry caught sight of her expression and shrugged. “It was Mr. Teddy Roosevelt who taught us, ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick.’” He grinned at her. “Don’t worry, kid. I’d never use this bat on your brothers. It’s signed by Mickey Mantle!”
There’s a funny thing about stories. They don’t happen on the page. This (point to manuscript) isn’t the story you just heard. The story you just heard is the story you just heard—it happened between us, somewhere halfway in between this page and your ears. And because it’s something that happened between us, each one of you will have heard that story just a little bit differently. Different details will stand out. You’ll have had different feelings. And it will be a different story than the one that’s told at the next service.
This same principle—that the story is an event that happens between us, not just words on a page—that same principle is true for the gospel story we heard today, too. There are three different audiences that I was thinking of when I looked at these words about the Advocate, about not being orphaned, about Jesus being in the Father and the Father in him and Jesus in us:
The first is the disciples who were gathered around Jesus in John chapter 14, on the night before his crucifixion and death. How would they have heard these words? Would they have understood that Jesus was talking to them about leaving them because he was dying, and coming back because he would be raised? Did they still feel orphaned anyway, the next day?
The second audience is the one who first wrote this gospel down—probably a Jewish Christian community sometime around the turn of the first century. The people who first heard these words as we’ve just heard them were likely to have been former Jews who were kicked out of their synagogues for believing in Jesus. They must have felt very much like orphans sometimes.
There were probably stretches where they felt like it was them against the world, even though they knew that Jesus had come to save the world. Kind of like how Marcy felt like it was her against Fred and Jason, even though they were members of one family, and loved one another. That early Christian community also believed that Jesus was coming back—this time from heaven, not from the dead. And they would have very much needed the comfort of Jesus’ assurance: “I am coming to you.” Just like Marcy needed the assurance that her parents were coming home.
And then there’s us. We’re two thousand years removed from the first and second audiences. We certainly hear things differently. But there’s one thing we have in common: we’re waiting for Jesus to come back. And in the meantime, we’re leaning into the promise we heard today: the promise of an Advocate.
In Greek, the word is paraclete. (If you need help remembering that, picture Mr. Perry wearing his cleats. See what I did there?) It’s a word that’s kind of hard to translate into English. The Greek elements that make up paraclete means something like, “Come alongside one another.”
A good paraclete does what Mr. Perry did for Marcy: he came to her side. He encouraged her. He didn’t do her job for her, but he empowered her to do what she needed to do.
In just the same way, the Holy Spirit enables us to do what Jesus asks of us: to keep his commandments—the newest and most important of which he gives just a chapter before today’s gospel: to love one another as he has loved us.
Even on the days when it feels like us against the world—when the world seems to be reveling in chaos, and it feels like it would be so much easier to just build a barricade at the kitchen door and wait until the Second Coming—the Paraclete comes to our side to help us keep loving, to help us keep holding God’s commandments dear, to keep sending us into the crazy living room to remind our loved ones of what is good.
Because when we do that—when we step out into the world even, especially, when it seems overwhelming and out of our control, and align each of our words and actions with that great commandment to love one another—then we ourselves come to each others’ sides. We ourselves become paracletes.
We’re waiting for Jesus to get home, but he hasn’t left us orphaned. We have the Advocate. And we have each other, called, gathered, and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.