Every morning when I come downstairs, I light a fresh votive candle and place it in the middle of this circle, then I recite the words that are carved into it: “The light of God surrounds you. The love of God enfolds you. The power of God protects you. The presence of God watches over you. Wherever you are, God is. Wherever you are, God is. Wherever you are, God is.” These words are reminders that I can’t be anywhere that God is not. I am surrounded, enfolded, protected. The repetition around the outside of the circle “Wherever you are, God is” three times reminds me that it’s not just about me, that none my loved ones, none of my neighbors, none of those in war zones or basking in luxury – literally no one – can be somewhere that God is not. Those words echo and affirm the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “I will not leave you.”
Our translation reads “I will not leave you orphaned.” Other translations have Jesus saying, “I will not leave you comfortless, or bereaved, or desolate.” It’s a message to us throughout the ages: whether our loss is literally the death of our parents, or of another beloved one, or divorce, or dementia, or the loss of a job and a sense of purpose, or a move away from all that’s familiar, or emotional isolation, financial trauma, spiritual desperation – whatever our loss, we are not alone. Even when we don’t feel it or believe it.
Knowing how hard it was for his disciples to hear of and accept his impending death, Jesus assures them of his ongoing love and companionship. He understands that his disciples will panic, will be terrified by his arrest and brutal death, will even abandon him. But he tells them emphatically: “I will not leave you. I love you. You will not – cannot — be alone and abandoned. No matter what grief or loss you carry. No matter what. I am with you.”
Of course the disciples didn’t get it – I doubt I would have if I’d been there. Half the time, if I’m honest, I still don’t. If he’s going to die, how can he continue to be with the disciples, let alone with me in my wakeful nights? So Jesus tells them (and us), “I will ask God, who will give you …” – and here again we have multiple translations – who will give you a “comforter, an advocate, a helper, a companion.” All of these names derive from the Greek word paracletos, whose basic meaning is to “come alongside another.”
And that matters. Because what Jesus is saying is that just as his Spirit dwells within us, the Spirit will also serve as a companion alongside us – which is what he calls his disciples – and us—to do: to walk alongside each other. Because loss is lonely. This business of being human can be lonely. And so he invites us into community: to listen to one another, to work together, to be there for each other.
Let me tell you a story. Twenty-four years ago, preparing for ordination as a deacon, I did my Pastoral Education training with the director of the Jason Program, a program specifically devoted to pediatric hospice work, learning how to be a chaplain for families whose children had received a terminal diagnosis. After I was ordained, I stayed on for eight years on as their chaplain. During those years, I sat with parents who knew they were facing a devastating loss—worse than orphanhood. According statistics, there’s an understandably higher divorce rate among these families. As Jesus knows, grief is lonely, and hard. So what the Jason Program did was connect those families with each other, offering regular gatherings where parents could share their experience of impending loss, acknowledge moments of grace, moments of debilitating grief, even silly stories. They could say the names of their children out loud. So many family friends disappear when a child is given a terminal diagnosis, as though cancer or heart disease or congenital abnormalities were contagious, or because people simply can’t bear to look at the face of such grief. So the Jason Program worked to create community. Yes, I would visit individual families at home or in the hospital, and listen to them, and pray with them, and help them plan the funeral for their child, but it was the community of other parents that sustained them; they knew they were not alone. The Holy Spirit was palpably present in those gatherings. And in those eight years, none of the families we served divorced.
I tell this story to remind us of the strength and beauty of this community we share here at St. Paul’s, of our commitment to one another through the fellowship of our shared prayers and our small group ministries. Jesus has given us into one another’s care, and into caring about the wider world. We can, together in community, do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
In the evening while dinner cooks, I sit down in the rocking chair by our front window with my prayer beads, and for the past four years now, the words I’ve been praying as I make my way around the circle of beads are based on our hymn to the Holy Spirit which begins “Breathe on me, Breath of God.” Over the years I found myself changing that opening to “Breathe IN me, Breath of God,” thinking of Jesus telling his disciples that the Holy Spirit – God’s breath, ruach –lives in each of us. My morning prayers remind me that God surrounds and embraces us. My evening prayers remind me that God dwells inside us. And all of these prayers remind me of Jesus’ promise: “I will come alongside you. I will accompany you. I will never leave you desolate and alone. And because I have given you into each other’s care and put my Spirit within you, accompany each other; be there for each other; love one another.”