Sunday, May 21, 2017

Guided by the Holy Spirit in a Time of Anxiety

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 21, 2017

Year A: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Guided by The Holy Spirit in a Time of Anxiety
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            If you were here last week, you may remember that I mentioned that I had just hit a milestone birthday – and let me say thanks for your kind wishes, and for that delicious cake.
            But, as it turns out, that’s not my only milestone this year.
            Sort of unbelievably, this year is the tenth anniversary of my seminary graduation and ordination as a deacon and a priest.
            In fact, the other day, on Facebook, one of my seminary classmates posted some pictures from our graduation day and, sure enough, there I was – looking surprisingly young - and dark-haired!
            Seeing those pictures got me thinking back to those days – which, as probably every graduate knows, were, of course, days of joy and a sense of accomplishment – but also days of anxiety.
            I tend to be a little anxious to begin with, but in this case, I was feeling anxious because three years earlier I had left a pretty good gig that I enjoyed very much – teaching History down at St. Peter’s Prep – to step into the unknown and the uncertain.
            Even back then, it was clear that the Church was in decline, with fewer people coming to church and so fewer churches able to support full-time priests. And, since I have kind of a limited skill set, I wondered and worried about what I would do if I couldn’t get one of those increasingly rare jobs.
            I bet you know the feeling.
            The details may be different, but I bet most, if not all, of us have experienced that same kind of anxiety:
            What’s going to happen? Will everything work out? What will I do if things don’t go according to plan? What if I’m not good enough?
            Feel free to add your own anxieties!
            In today’s lesson from the Gospel of John, we pick up right where we left off last week.
            We’re back at the Last Supper and it is a scene of great anxiety.
            Last week, we heard Jesus trying to get through to his friends about his upcoming death, reassuring them that, while they will be separated for a while, they know the way to the place where Jesus is going – they know the way to the place of reunion.
            The Apostle Thomas speaks for the rest of them, anxiously admitting, “Lord, we do not know the way to the place where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And, now in today’s passage, Jesus tries to reassure his friends that, although he will no longer be with them in the same way, they will not be orphans because they will have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, forever.
            Most scholars think that this gospel, the Gospel of John, was completed around the year 100, seventy or so years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime, seventy or so years after that anxious last supper in Jerusalem.
            John is remembering that long-ago anxiety but he also has in mind the anxiety of his own community, a community that was being torn and divided in a time after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, a time when it was no longer so easy to be both Jewish and Christian at the same time, a time when there were angry disagreements about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
            But…John also knew that over those seventy years, despite the odds, at least part of the community had stuck together and, in fact, the Good News of Jesus had already spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
            So, John could look back over those seventy years and know that Jesus had kept his promise and sent the Holy Spirit to guide us, to guide us - especially in a time of anxiety.
            And, now here we are.
            Whatever is going on in our personal lives – and I know for many of us there is a whole lot of personal worry about health and finances and relationships – whatever is going on in our personal lives, here in the US we are living in a time of anxiety.
            Keeping up with the news is exhausting and terrifying, with multiple scandals being alleged nearly every single day, a general sense of instability and mistrust and decline and a kind of shabbiness that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced, but maybe some of our parishioners from less stable countries know these feelings only too well.
            Just in the last few days we saw shocking images of the Turkish president’s bodyguards beating up protestors on the streets of Washington DC - and also a more familiar but still terrifying nightmare as an apparently crazed man drove his car into the crowd at Times Square.
            And, closer to home, it’s been a violent few months here in Jersey City with so much shooting, so many wasted lives, and we anxiously note that the summer heat has just begun.
            So, I’ll admit that I feel anxious, but I also know in my heart that Jesus hasn’t left us orphaned, that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is at work guiding us and protecting us, even in, especially in, a time of anxiety.
            As a friend of mine says, “I don’t have to believe it, because I’ve seen it.”
            Ten years ago, I graduated seminary with great anxiety, wondering if I had made a big mistake, giving up a good and stable job that I loved, for an uncertain future.
            But, as some of you know, not long after graduation day, an opportunity opened up – an opportunity in the suburbs that I could not have imagined for myself and, honestly, at the time, didn’t really necessarily want for myself.
            But, a mentor of mine told me to go for it, because at Grace Madison I would learn so much about what makes a healthy church go, and then I could apply that learning when I finally got back to the city – and, he said, that I would make friends at Grace who’d want to help me and my church later on.
            The Holy Spirit at work.
            So, Sue and I found ourselves living in beautiful, green Madison and in that unlikely place we found so many wonderful, lovely, generous people – and, sure enough, I learned a lot and made friends who have been eager to help me ever since the Holy Spirit guided us back home here with all of you.
            So, yes, like the disciples gathered at the Last Supper, like John’s community at the turn of the first century, like so many people in so many times and places, we find ourselves living in a time of anxiety.
            And, inevitably, there will be mistakes, losses, regrets, and suffering. There seems to be no way around that for any of us.
            But, I can look back over my life so far – and I can look at our life together – and I know that Jesus has kept his promise and sent the Holy Spirit, to guide us, especially in a time of anxiety.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!