A Sermon for Covenant
“I Will Not Leave You Orphaned”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
May 25, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“Why did God let me see that?” Jeff had tears in his eyes as he told us what he had seen. We were partway through our stay in Moldova, and Jeff had spent a day tracking down the little girl he loved the way a father loves. She had been a girl he sponsored through JMI, but since her orphanage had been shut down and her biological mother had showed up at Luida’s new shelter and taken her back, no one was certain where Luida was or how she fared. Jeff just had to know, had to find out before he left the country and returned to the U.S. So he took a translator and went on a goose chase, trekking through villages and back streets to find her, stopping along the way and asking local folks for help. After a long search, along with the interpreter, he ended up walking a winding path up a forgotten hill, passing trash heaps and run-down patchwork shanties. He was near a dilapidated shack with only three walls standing when Luida peered out from behind one of the walls and called his name, “Jeff!” Amazingly, miraculously, he had found her.
Jeff ran over to Luida, hugged her, then masked his shock and disgust when he discovered living conditions worse than he had feared: a place not at all fit for a ten year old girl, a floor covered in trash, walls that looked as if they might cave in any moment. His heart breaking, Jeff saw the shame in Luida’s eyes. Jeff tried to make the best of it and hunted down Luida’s mother, who was down by the road selling peaches. He obtained permission to take to spend the day with Luida, take her shopping for her birthday, buy her lunch and ice cream. In the pictures, she is leaning against Jeff’s arm with bright eyes and a beautiful smile wrapped across her face.
But then Jeff had to leave Luida and come back to us, and having to leave her like that was a lot to bear. He was so torn up about her state, he could not tell the story without choking up. At first, no one knew for sure if anything could be done to help Luida. But what could be done, Jeff did, and before we left Moldova, Luida had been moved to a safer place. With the help of others, Jeff was able to advocate on her behalf, and because of his advocacy, she was rescued. She is currently living with a foster family in Moldova, and since returning to the U.S, Jeff has continued to advocate for her wellbeing and navigate the complicated possibility of adopting her as his own.
I have marveled at that story again and again since returning from Moldova, thinking to myself how Jeff is possibly the only person in all the world with enough of a connection to Luida and a passion for her safety to track her down the way he did, and he traveled halfway across the world to do it. It’s not like he set out to be a hero or to save her. All he wanted to do was find her, hug her, see if she was okay. One thing led to another, and before he knew it, he was saving her life from devastating conditions and trying to find a way to bring her home . . .
I think about Jesus’ words in our text today: “I will not leave you orphaned.” I wonder if its possible that God might be so tenacious about his children as Jeff was about Luida. It’s hard to believe this, because we see way too many dilapidated shacks with desperate faces peeking out from them and we wonder, “Where is God and why doesn’t God do something?”
But what if Jesus’ words were true? What if God doesn’t give up on humanity, not ever? What if God were fighting for the world, fighting for the suffering ones, fighting for you?
This particular exchange with the disciples happens not long before Jesus’ death, and so he’s telling them, even though I am going away, I will send you another Advocate, the Holy Spirit. He (we) will be with you, always. Imagine the timeline: Even though biblically this was a pre-crucifixion event, in the church year, we are reading this story in Eastertide, post resurrection. Imagine those words “I will not leave you orphaned” in this new context. Jesus has already left and come back.
Think about the disciples, wedged between the resurrection and the ascension, remembering this speech from Jesus, reflecting back on his promise not to abandon them. What was it like, having lost Jesus, then have him resurrected, only to be on the verge of losing him again? What a roller coaster of emotion. Maybe Luida felt this way: having Jeff show up in her life so unexpectedly from across the world, only to have him depart again and leave her there. I don’t know, but I imagine the disciples were full of fear and worry: a miraculous reunion with Jesus, but then, he had to go away again.
Jesus is promising them the Holy Spirit, but depending on your temperament, a disembodied invisible spirit just doesn’t cut it the way a flesh and blood human does. Jesus also promises he is coming back, but whether he is talking about the resurrection, his second coming, his coming in and through the Holy Spirit, or his coming in some other mysterious way isn’t entirely clear, even now, and especially was not clear then. The disciples had to begin to learn to trust that they were not alone, would not be alone, even when they seemed very, very alone.
This, as I see it, is the Christian journey: learning to trust that you are not alone, even when it seems that you are. Learning how to receive the love of God that is free and accessible to you ends up taking all your life.
Henri Nouwen says, “Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.” Anne Lamott tells the story of a devastating fire that swept through a coastal town, destroying 12,000 acres of wilderness and around 50 homes. The fire had been started by four teenage boys who went camping illegally, built a campfire, then buried it under dirt in the morning and left. They hadn’t known it was a fire danger. After the fire broke out, they turned themselves in, with their parents beside them.
In the town, as people talked with another about the tragedy, sharing stories of both loss and recovery, they also shared stories about their own worst teenage mistakes and transgressions. Eventually, when things had settled down a bit, the townspeople held a picnic to honor the bravery of the firemen who had worked tirelessly to save what they could. The president of the board of the fireman stood up to make a speech. He delivered the expected thank you’s, but then he began to talk about how in ancient times, people who did damage to a town were sent to live outside it, outside the walls, outside the protection of the city. He had heard that the families of the four young boys were thinking of moving away, on account of the shame. He recommended that the town make it clear: we want you to stay. We need you here, with us.
Applause broke out. Families who had lost their homes to the fire came forward and said, “We agree. They should stay.”
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, when Peter remembered Jesus’ words to him, “I will not leave you orphaned,” what did that promise feel like, knowing that he had abandoned Jesus in his greatest hour of need? Can you hear those words with Peter ears?
What is it like, after you’ve made a mistake, maybe even a terrible mistake, to know that you have not been lost or left behind? That you are still welcome. That forgiveness abounds and that mercy is plentiful, granted, and yours. What is it to know there is still a home for you, and always will be. You do not have to leave and no one wants you to.
Grace. Grace. God’s grace. Grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace. Grace. God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all my sin.
When I think about the faces of the children I met in Moldova, it strikes me as a little pathetic that it is taking me so long to know that I am loved. I have parents, friends, mentors, siblings—a whole host of people telling me all my life: you are loved. But with every disappointment and every failure and every scary moment of uncertainty, I am ravenous for more love, better love, tangible love, wrap-me-in-a-bear-hug-right-this-moment love.
It strikes me as a little pathetic on my part, but it also occurs to me that this is human—the craving for love. If we did not crave, perhaps we would not know God. If we did not crave, perhaps we would never learn how to love in return. If we did not crave, perhaps we would never become soft and pliable and open to friendship; we’d stay self-sufficient hard. We’d be self-satisfied and all closed up and boarded off.
I don’t know exactly how to navigate our neediness. I know that we are allowed to be needy. We are allowed to need more love, to want more love, to crave more love. We are allowed to be ravenous. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” That’s one way Jesus said it. I know that our longing for love is what has the potential to turn us into love. Like the lines of a poem say, “Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumpled, so wildflowers will come up where you are. You’ve been stony for too many years.” There is really only this choice before us: to suffer loss and shut up your heart, or to suffer loss and open wide.
Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” I think this may be shorthand for: When you don’t get the love you want, find a way to give it. In other words, when it comes to love for God and being loved by God, the feeling of love isn’t always readily available, but the choice to act in love as God commanded is always only one step away. When you don’t get the love you want, find a way to give love. Then give it again. And give it again. Trusting, trusting, trusting that you will not be orphaned. Trusting, trusting, trusting that an advocate is on its way. Trusting, trusting, trusting that there is life after death. Trusting, trusting, trusting that despite how it feels, you are in the Jesus, and Jesus is in you, and Jesus is in the Father, and if that sounds confusing and hard to untangle, the point is that you’re all mixed in together. You’re bundled in the presence of God, tangled up in it beyond the possibility of separation. You’re intermingled and woven and smashed together. You can’t get away. Home follows you. Love follows you. You are held. You are held. You are held. You are known. You are known. You are known. (You can leave town like a prodigal, but you will never be forced out, and someone will always be waiting eagerly for your return. Sometimes you have to stray and come back to figure out you are loved; a little self-indulgence before you figure out you can trust. Sometimes you choose to stay, give love away rather than squander your gifts.)
To keep showing love when what you really want is to be shown love is an act of radical, radical faith. You exhibit love, trusting that love is on its way to you, and every time you do so, it becomes this small miracle through which God shows another person that they have not been abandoned, because you, through Christ, love them.
May know that we are loved, and when we do not yet know it, may we take a leap of faith and give the little bit of love we have clean away, trusting its boomerang force to return to us tenfold. Amen.