by Pastor Sarah Stadler
The first time I ever felt alone, I was eight years old.
For the whole of my remembered life, my family had lived in Greenbush, Minnesota, and a month before the dreaded alone date, my parents sat me down—along with my sister—and told us that we would be moving to a town called Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, three hours away. While my sister graciously accepted this news, I told my parents through tears that it was fine that they were moving but that I would be staying in Greenbush. Moving day came, December 26, and lots of people from church came to help pack up the moving van. After avoiding the moving van and pretending that I wouldn’t be moving, I finally succumbed to reality and got in the van. Three hours later, we arrived at our new home. I knew no one, had no friends, knew nothing about the town, did not know where anything was. I took to singing every night in a mournful tone while facing north, the direction of Greenbush: Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight. Seriously, I did this every night for several months. I felt alone. My family was there, of course, but all my friends and teachers and neighbors and church people were gone. In my eight year old head in a time before texting, before Facebook, before email, living three hours away from nearly everyone I knew and loved was total devastation.
In the gospel of John, Jesus informs the disciples that he will be leaving. And if just for today we push aside the gruesome and scary details about how he will leave and just consider the fact of Jesus’ absence, we are still left with grief. After three years of traveling alongside Jesus, of feeding people and watching Jesus heal them, of seeing Jesus restore people to community and hearing him forgive sin, of listening to Jesus preach and teach, after three years, Jesus will leave the disciples. He will no longer eat with them and pray with them and catch fish with them. Oh, how they will miss him! Oh, how they will grieve his absence! In addition to the very human grief of the absence of a loved person, the disciples likely grieved the end of their political and theological dreams. With Jesus leaving, what would happen to his movement to overthrow the Roman Empire? Perhaps we don’t see the goal of Jesus’ life and ministry this way, but the disciples surely did. With Jesus leaving, what would the disciples’ lives look like? Would they go back to fishing and tax collecting?
Unlike the disciples, we have never known Jesus in physical form, so perhaps we don’t grieve his physical absence. However, there are probably all times that we feel alone and wonder if God is really present. Whether our grief comes from our inability to see God physically present with us especially in difficult times or from unrealized political dreams like God creating a more just and loving world or from our vocational questions like what does God want me to do with my life, we grieve what we perceive as God’s absence, of being alone in a large universe that doesn’t always make sense to us. In the midst of our grief, in the midst of the disciples’ grief, Jesus declares: I will ask the Father, and the Father will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I won’t be with you, Jesus says, but the Advocate, the Spirit, will be with you, in you forever. You will not be alone!
I know this is a simple thing: the fact that we are not alone, that God is with us. AND Jesus says that the Spirit takes up residence IN us. Because Jesus is no longer physically present in the world, God takes up residence in US. Jesus says that the Spirit, the Advocate will be with us forever, made manifest in God’s people not just on an individual level because of course individuals die but throughout the generations in community.
I know I’ve talked about this recently, but I think it bears mentioning again. In talking with someone at Grace about a very difficult situation, an emotionally and spiritually complex situation, this person shared that they have heard an abundance of clichés and pleasantries from friends and family about the situation at hand. Things like: Don’t worry; it’ll all work out. You just need to pray about it. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Everything happens for a reason. Even if some of these statements are meaningful for you, they are seriously not helpful in the moment that someone speaks of their pain. In fact, for the person with whom I was speaking, those sentiments made the situation worse—because it made it clear that their friends and family were uncomfortable and needed to try and make everything okay instead of accepting the fact that, right now, things were not okay. In that space, what the person really needed was for me to say: That sucks. I’m so sorry. And: You’re not alone. And it was in just being okay with the not-okayness of the situation that I was truly present. Trying to make a situation something it’s not means that we’re not present to it. Let me tell you: I questioned the effectiveness of this strategy. I said to the person in front of me: I wish there was something I could say or do to make this better, but I got nothin.’ I’m sorry. I watched the person break into a smile. It’s helpful that you’re not trying to cheer me up, they said. It’s helpful that you’re just here listening.
In moments when we feel alone, in moments when we feel defeated by the enormity of the problems in the world, in moments when we don’t know where to go or what to do, we grieve what we perceive as God’s absence and maybe even the absence of God’s people in our lives. Maybe we don’t feel like there is anyone we can turn to who will just sit with us in the not-okayness of all that is going on. I want you to know today that you truly are not alone, that God is with you, with us, that God has taken up residence in us. Will all our questions be answered, all our concerns addressed? Maybe not. But for some reason I don’t really understand, when we are in that place of grief, answers are not so much what we need or want but instead the loving presence of a friend, the loving presence of God. That’s it. And you know what? That we have—God’s presence and a community to walk with us. That’s good news, right? Thanks be to God! Amen.