When I was really young, I was actually a fairly shy, nervous child. For people who know me now, that’s probably kind of hard to imagine, but it is true. I was especially anxious about the prospect of starting school. I felt like I wasn’t prepared enough to go yet, and I worried that I wouldn’t know anyone there.
My mom took me to school on the first day of kindergarten prep – and I clung onto her like a second skin. I literally had hold of her leg as she stood in the doorway. She tried to convince me to let go, that I was going to have so much fun; finally she said, “Look, there’s your friend Valerie over there; why don’t you go say hello?” I let go of her leg for one second to wave hello – and by the time I turned around, Mom was gone. At first, I definitely felt like I had been “left orphaned”; but of course my mom was right and I ended up having a great time. (And she did come back to get me later!)
No matter how high or low the stakes are, venturing into the unknown is often scary. And that can be true whether you are a kindergartener on the first day of school, a worker who has recently started – or lost – a job, a cancer patient on the first day of chemo treatments, or literally anyone living through a global pandemic. I’m sure you probably don’t have to look very far back in your mind to come up with a time that was full of anxious uncertainty for you.
Uncertainty is really hard to live with – especially when you’re dealing with high stakes, life and death kinds of issues. In those situations, any news – even bad news – feels better than not knowing; because even when the news is bad, at least you know what you’re dealing with and you can make a plan. And when you’re stuck for an extended period in this kind of uncertainty and anxiety and fear, it can be easy to start feeling hopeless, not knowing what’s coming next.
In our gospel reading for this morning, we find Jesus and the disciples living in a pretty tense moment of uncertainty (uncertain for the disciples, anyway). This reading picks up immediately after our gospel reading from last Sunday. You might remember that what we’re reading is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse. These are the words he spoke to his disciples in the upper room on their last night together, on the eve of his death.
Up until this point, ministry with Jesus has been pretty exciting for the disciples. They’ve traveled all over Galilee and Judea and even Samaria spreading the good news. They’ve watched Jesus turn water into wine and feed multitudes and raise Lazarus from the dead, and they have cheered him on as he built a kingdom movement that spread like wildfire.
But now they are stepping into the next stage of the journey. And even though Jesus has been trying to explain to them what is going to happen, the disciples still have no real idea of what is actually coming. Jesus is about to die, and in our gospel reading, the disciples are only just starting to realize that he is trying to prepare them for what comes next. And what comes next is not what they expected when they signed up for this adventure.
We know all too well what it is like to live through times that are not at all what we expected. None of us could have imagined at the beginning of the year how much the whole world would change in the space of a few months. And I especially feel for our graduating seniors whom we celebrate today. Who would have guessed at the beginning of the school year that plans for parties and prom and even graduation would be interrupted by a global pandemic? I can imagine that you are feeling some disappointment and grief about those lost opportunities. I hope that you are finding opportunities to celebrate this important accomplishment in some way – because you deserve to do so. But I know that same anxious uncertainty is still going to be there, for all of us.
Yet even in the midst of these times of uncertainty and grief and fear, we hear anew the promise that Jesus makes to his disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.” Jesus makes this promise to us too. Whether we be a frightened disciple, a disappointed graduating senior, a person receiving a troubling diagnosis, or even a lost, scared kindergartener on the first day of school, Jesus reassures us that God has not abandoned us.
There is always reason for hope. As Christians, we are a people who are characterized by hope – because we know that God is at work for the good, even when we can’t see it. We know that God is always with us to care for us and to guide us, no matter how dark the valley. And we know that with God’s help we can face whatever may come.
Even in this time of exile, when we are not able to gather physically, we do not lose hope. We hear the words of Paul’s address to the Athenians in our reading from Acts: The God who made the world and everything in it – the one who is Lord of heaven and earth – does not live in shrines (like this one) made by human hands. God is not far from each of us, even when we are far from each other. Because, as Paul says here, it is in God that we live and move and have our being. God is in us and we are in God. And so, even though this time together might not feel as worshipful as it did when we were gathered together, we can rest assured that God is every bit as present with us now. We can stand firm in our hope that God will see us through this.
And our hope is founded in those same words of reassurance that Jesus speaks to his disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
It must have been hard for Jesus’ disciples to hear those words in that moment, when it felt like absolutely everything was falling apart. Here he was, going to his death, yet in that moment promising them life. They didn’t know yet as we do now that God’s love would overcome even death. And in the same way, in this moment, we don’t know as God does how things are going to turn out. And in this moment, we might feel like absolutely everything is falling apart. But even in the midst of the illness and death and uncertainty of this pandemic, we have hope – because Christ lives. Christ is alive! And because he lives, we live.
And our hope helps us to endure, even in times like this. We’ve been reading a lot from the book of 1 Peter the last few weeks about enduring through times of suffering, and today the author of 1 Peter encourages us again that God is with us, blessing us, when we suffer for doing what is right.
And our hope in Christ also helps us to help our neighbors endure this time of suffering as well. We do this in tangible, physical ways – like the awesome way this community has stepped up to support our food pantry and mobile food bank ministries during this time. And we can also do this in a lot of less tangible ways. We can continue to check in with each other. We can pray for each other and for our community and our world. And we can witness to the reason for our hope.
This last one is important. There are lots of people struggling right now, people who feel lost and anxious and uncertain about the future. You probably know some, whether you realize it or not. And we have something really good to share here – something that people need. This really good news of life and hope in Christ is something that we shouldn’t take for granted; it’s something we should share! In this vein, the author of 1 Peter urges us “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” The hope that is in us is because of Christ.
And I especially encourage those of you who are graduating to take these words about hope to heart. You are moving forward into the next chapter of your lives, and whatever it may hold, you are sure to face both challenges and joys. And who knows, you may soon find yourselves in a new place, feeling a little bit like a lost, scared kindergartener, wishing for a leg to cling to. Let this hope guide you. Remember your faith and let it be your foundation. Remember that no matter what you face, God is with you.
We are in God and God is in us. And in God, we find both our life and our hope.