May 21, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
a long way from home.
I don’t know that there are many songs in the English language which express a feeling more profoundly than this old spiritual. In just seven words, it captures what it means to be utterly vulnerable and deeply alone in the world. Then, it repeats those seven words, not once but twice more. And when that description of vulnerability and despair is drilled in, it adds another image, evoking the safety, the protection, the warmth, and the love of home, then putting all of that at a significant distance. A motherless child, a long way from home: no one wants to feel that way.
Have you ever felt that way, though? Have you ever felt that kind of vulnerability and loneliness? Have you ever felt that desperate for the care and protection of a parent? Have you ever felt that kind of distance, a long way from safety, a long way from warmth, and a long way from love? It can feel that way: when the doctor says that there is bad news, when the boss taps you on the shoulder with a grim look on their face, when you realize just how brittle the marriage has become, when a chasm seems to open up between the good times and the present. When there is no one there to hear how your day went, when no one is there to notice that you are tossing and turning all night, you feel like you need the help, the comfort, and the encouragement of your mother, but you also realize that you are a long way from home. No one wants to feel that way, but I suspect most of us have at one time or another.
There is something interesting to notice about that old spiritual, though. Usually the spirituals have something to say about faith. They draw on a Biblical image: go down, Moses. They talk about journeying toward God: steal away to Jesus. They encourage faith: we are climbing Jacob’s ladder. They provide visions of hope: swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. But not this one. There is nothing about God, about Jesus, about the power of prayer or the hope of heaven in these words. There is just that raw feeling: sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.
The closest it probably comes to evoking a Biblical scene might be the one we just read about a few minutes ago. What we read are simply words of Jesus. But those words are an important part of the story of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. They were spoken on the night when Jesus was arrested. In chapter 13 of John’s gospel, there is the story of the disciples’ gathering that night, when, during supper, Jesus took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around himself, poured water in a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He pointed out that they called him their teacher and their Lord. So, he told them, if he did such an act of humility with them, assuming the role of a servant, then they needed to treat each other with that same kind of humility and attitude of service. Judas left the supper early that night, leaving Jesus with the other eleven, and he launched into a long time of teaching and prayer. He talked about his impending arrest and death, but he put it in terms of a journey. He was leaving them, he said, and “where I am going, you cannot follow.”
The disciples were saddened and shocked by his frank talk. They had traveled with him everywhere up to that point, through the countryside, down to the big city and back again, into the high places of their faith and through all the places of their everyday lives. The relationship between a teacher and his disciples was different than a relationship between a teacher and her students now. There were no grade levels and switching classes; each disciple would have only one teacher and would stay with that teacher for a period of years, if not a whole lifetime. A person’s teacher was like a person’s parent, and the disciple’s identity was wrapped up with the teacher. Everyone in the community would know that Peter was a disciple of the teacher Jesus, and they would make assumptions about how Peter would act, what he would say, how he would spend his time, and even what clothes he would wear based on who his teacher was. The teacher even had the right to give the disciples a new name, literally changing the disciple’s identity based on that relationship.
And so, when a teacher died or otherwise left the relationship with the disciple, it was not uncommon to talk about that disciple as being orphaned. It was as if that disciple had lost a parent who had taken on the responsibility of shaping and molding the disciple, and even providing for and protecting the disciple. So, when the disciples finally understood what Jesus was telling them that night when he was arrested, and when they were sitting in sadness and shock at what he was saying so frankly about his arrest and his death, he switched gears. He changed from instructing them to live lives of humble service with each other to reassuring them. And he used an important phrase: “I will not leave you orphaned.” I will not abandon you to be all on your own. I will not make you live without a teacher. You will not be a motherless child, even if it feels like that for a time. I will not leave you orphaned.
Instead, he said, he would ask the Father, and the Father would send another Spirit who would accompany them and teach them and provide for them and protect them forever. He actually used a word to describe this spirit of companionship and guidance which doesn’t translate easily into English. The word in Greek is paraklitos, paraclete. In some English translations, it is “helper.” That evokes someone who would be with us to aid us in our daily tasks, assisting us to find what we need, to organize us and order our lives so that things are easier than they would be without the helper. In other translations, it is “comforter.” That is a bit of a different way of understanding the role. The comforter is someone who really doesn’t do anything by way of specific acts of help; let’s face it, often there is nothing that anyone can really do when we suffer the loss or the pain which we feel. But the comforter is there with us all the time, offering a kind presence, a reassuring embrace, a warm smile, and a sounding block that will resonate with reassurance and hope when we are frustrated, confused, unsure, or just plain sad. In our translation in the pew Bibles, the English word is “advocate.” That is like a defense lawyer or some other person who speaks when we are unable to speak for ourselves. An advocate will stand up and plead our case, to present our side of the story in a way that people will listen to it, and even explain how we don’t deserve what we is happening to us. God said about the Hebrew slaves, “I have heard my people cry;” with the advocate, God will always hear our cries for help and for justice.
The Spirit which Jesus promised his disciples is all of that: a helper, a comforter, an advocate, a paraclete. It is like another teacher, or another parent; it is the presence which will assure them that they have not been left without protection, without guidance, without resources, without love, and even without identity. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus told the disciples.
And Jesus’ promise to his disciples is also a promise to us. I will not leave you orphaned. I will not leave you vulnerable and desperate. I will not leave you lonely and distant. You will not be a long way from home. You will not be a motherless child. That does not mean that you will never face the bad news from the doctor or from the boss, that you will never feel the distance in the relationship or the chasm between the good times and the present. But you will not be left there. “I will ask the Father, and the will give you another paraclete to be with you forever…I will not leave you orphaned.”
I pray that we can hear Jesus’ words spoken to us, too. I pray that we can hear that he will not leave us orphaned. I pray that we can know that the Spirit of Jesus which comes from the Father remains with us always as a helper, assisting us every day; as a comforter, present when nothing else can be done; as an advocate, making sure God hears our cries. I pray that we will know that, even though we sometimes feel like a motherless child, a long way from home, Jesus remains with us and in us.
Somewhere along the line, someone added another verse to that old spiritual. Maybe it was part of the original; maybe someone decided later on that it was not enough just to lament, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.” But they kept singing, anyway, and brought back that encouragement of faith and vision of hope which was missing from that first verse:
I know the Lord’s gonna help me along…
help me find my way back home.
May it be so. Amen.