John 14:15-21 NRSV
Three years ago on Mother’s Day, a rare set twins were born. They were called mono, mono twins, meaning that they shared the same amniotic sac and thus were in constant contact with one another. However, it was not the mono, mono rarity that got them so much attention. Jillian and Jenna Thistlewaite were born holding hands.
One of the most popular songs when I was born back in 1966 was entitled, Born Free. “Born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows, born free to follow your heart.”
It’s a nice song. However, Jillian and Jenna reminded us of the truth. We were not born to be independent and free, but we were born to be bound to, dependent on, one another. We were born to need one another. Jillian and Jenna reminded us that Christ has commanded us to love one another, to link up with mutual care and concern for one another, and to feel responsibility for one another. We were born to live in community.
We were not born free, as the song goes. We were born holding hands.
This should not surprise even the most casual observer of the human condition. The human animal is dependent upon his or her parents longer than any other animal on the face of the earth. We humans are born as frail, vulnerable, needy and very dependent creatures. Other animals are born with a more robust set of instincts. Within a few days after birth, a few hours for some, other animals are out and about, exploring the world on their own two or four feet; but not humans. We remain dependent for years, needing parental instruction for just about everything that makes us human in the first place. The truth is that we were created to be dependent.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples. But notice how he says goodbye. Does he say to them: “Congratulations, I’ve taught you well! You are now free to be on your own. Good luck with that”?
No, Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” “I’ll give you another advocate.” And this “advocate” will be the Holy Spirit who is to be the same counselor, comforter and guide that I have been with you.”
Jesus is preparing to leave, but he promises that he will not leave his disciples alone. He does not expect them to freely find their own way. He tells them that this companion, this Holy Spirit, “will abide with them, and will be in them.” In other words, they will have the same intimate, personal connection with the Advocate that they have enjoyed with Jesus.
Jesus promises to never leave his disciples alone, and with that promise comes the responsibility to keep his commandments, which Jesus said could be summarized in two: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus wants the disciples to ensure that none of their neighbors ever feel alone or unloved. They are commanded to remember how they were born, to be in relationship with others, linking up with one another in mutual care and concern, always feeling responsibility for one another.
Jesus understood that human beings, like perhaps no other animal on earth, share a primal need for community. And Jesus understood that God wills for no one to ever be alone.
The pain of loneliness is so great that many have likened it to Hell itself. C. S. Lewis once wrote about waking up in the middle of the night, and not being able to go back to sleep. He was living alone at the time; and as he lay there in utter darkness, and with no one to whom to relate, it dawned on him that such a condition was the antithesis of what it meant to be a vibrant human being. Then the thought struck him,
“What if I had to live on in this kind of vacuum forever?” Such a prospect appeared more fearful than a thousand burning hells. Then he realized that this kind of aloneness was the logical end of not loving or of refusing to relate.[i]
T. S. Elliot once wrote these words about loneliness:
There was a door, and I could not open it. I could not touch the handle. Why could I not walk out of my prison? What is Hell? Hell is oneself, Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections.
There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to. One is always alone.[ii]
No wonder the first thing in the creation that God said was “not good,” says Genesis, was loneliness.
During the same week that the Thistlewaite twins were born, I visited someone in the nursing home who was sound asleep when I arrived in her room. Her roommate heard that I was having trouble waking her up, and spoke up with a soft voice through the curtain that divided the beds: “She has been sleeping like that for hours.”
Being polite, I acknowledged her, “Hey! How are you doing today?”
The way she barely responded let me know right away that she was not well. So I went around the curtain to her bedside.
“How long have you been in the nursing home?” I asked.
“Three years,” she said.
“Three years! My goodness. Well, why are you here?” I asked.
She said, “I can no longer walk. I cannot even get out of this bed.”
She then told me that she had been a victim of domestic violence. “My second husband beat me and beat me and beat me. He messed up my back, my hip and my legs.”
“I am so sorry to hear that! Have you had surgery?”
“Oh, yes, I have had many surgeries, but none of them did any good.”
Do you have any children?”
She said, “I have two boys. One though lives in Oklahoma City. He is a pilot. The other lives closer. He is the only one who comes to see me.”
I asked: “Are you a member of a church?”
Tears began to well up in her eyes as she responded: “I tried to join a church one time, but I was always black and blue from the beatings my husband would give me. I reckon that because of that, people did not accept me. At least, I never felt that they accepted me.”
As tears now streamed down her cheeks, she got louder and said, “But I wanted nothing in my life more than to be a part of a church, to have a church family, to be accepted.”
I asked, “So you have never had a pastor?”
She shook her head “no.”
Now, how else could I have responded? What else could I have said? There was only one thing that I could have said. I was not free to say anything else, for I had been commanded by my Lord and Savior to say it. I pulled a business card from my pocket and said, “Well, you have a pastor now.”
I then reached down and took her hand, and holding hands, we prayed together. After the prayer, I told her that I was going to my car where I had some more information about our church for her. When I came back, she was holding the card that I had given her, sobbing. She looked at me with a smile and thanked me as if I had given her a million dollars.
May we never forget that each human born in this world was born to hold hands with another. No one is ever born to be alone. Everyone needs to be accepted. Everyone needs to be loved. Everyone needs to be a part of a family. Everyone needs to believe that their life matters to someone. Every one needs to be understood. Everyone needs to be able to pray the prayer of the seventy-third Psalm: “O God, I am never away from you, always with you, for you hold my right hand.”
Today is Senior Sunday. We do not have this service this morning to say: “Congratulations, you have been taught well. You are now free to be on your own! Good luck, with that!”
No, this morning, like every Sunday morning, we have gathered this morning acknowledging our dependency on one another and on God. We are here to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves. We are here seeking to move away from selfishness and towards selflessness, away from loneliness and towards community. We are here to hold hands with one another and to hold hands with God.
We are here to help each other die completely to self, to deny the self-centeredness that C.S. Lewis said leads to “a thousand burning hells.” We are here to remind ourselves that we have been born again, not to be free, but to be dependent on God and one another as we seek to keep the commandments of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Emily Angleton, Meg Bloom, Molly Bloom, Hunter Evans, Sarah Johnson, and Brent Tilley…
Wherever you go, know that you are never alone. Know that you will always have a home here. You will always have a family here. You will always have a community of grace here. And remember you have been called to share the community we experience here, to share the love of Christ that binds us together here, with all people.
Be thankful not only for what you have already learned, but for the opportunities that lay before you to continue learning, to continue to be seekers of truth and knowledge; and may you use truth, never for selfish advantage, but to be advocates of acceptance and justice for all people.
Now, at this time, may we all reaffirm our commitment to love one another, to love these graduating Seniors, to link up with one another in mutual care and concern, and be responsible for one another, to live in community, to truly be a family of faith, by taking the hand of the person sitting next to you. For the sake of these graduates and for our community, let us follow the lead of Jillian and Jenna Thistlewaite, as we pray together.
O God, thank you for the high school graduates of our community.
Bless them as they seek to die to self and follow you daily.
May they remember that they are never alone. For we are and will always be family to them.
And we ask your blessings upon all of us here as we hold hands and commit ourselves be a community, a family of faith for each other.
And may we continue to recognize that there are many in our world,
in our town, who are experiencing the burning Hell of loneliness,
those who have never been accepted, welcomed, loved by others.
May we commit ourselves today to reach out to them with grace,
accept them, love them, and take them by the hand,
until they know the love of Jesus Christ
who does not want to leave any person orphaned. Amen.
[i] Claypool, John. God Is an Amateur (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1994), 32
[ii] William P. Tuck, When You Are Lonely