The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Having loved his own, who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Tonight, we remember Jesus’ farewell meal, the Last Supper with his disciples. For Jesus knew what was ahead of him. He knew who would betray him, who would deny him, who would desert him. Yet he took this opportunity with his disciples to tell them one last time what he wanted them to remember when he was no longer physically with them. He told them so many things, but the commandment that he gave them was that they love one another as he loved them. It was a self-sacrificial love—deep, radical, never ending. He went on in his conversation with the disciples to tell them that he wouldn’t leave them orphaned, that the Father would send another—an Advocate, a Comforter, the Holy Spirit—who would be with them always: to abide with them, but also comfort them, encourage and strengthen them, guide them, and that his presence would be with them always.
He went on to wash their feet, modeling for them what servant ministry looks like, that no task is too small or too lowly. He told them that there is no greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You see, he was trying to equip those disciples for what was coming, which they couldn’t fully comprehend or understand. Their world as they knew it was about to be turned on its head and he wanted them to remember that God was with them, that God would abide in them so that they, after the Resurrection, could carry on his work of love and reconciliation; that they would in fact transition from being disciples, followers of Jesus, to the apostles, the bearers of the good news of the resurrected Christ. That lesson wasn’t just for the disciples 2000 years ago. It is a lesson that is ever urgent for you and me today: loving one another as Jesus loved us in a sacrificial giving way. Our world needs that sacrificial love, now more than ever.
There are times in our lives when we have cycles and seasons that we go through. In his book, The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann talks about those seasons as beginning with orientation and that’s when things seem as they should be. They’re secure, they’re stable. They’re somewhat predictable. We can sense God in our very midst because things are going well or at least we think so. But then, inevitably, as life goes, something happens that knocks us right out of that homeostasis into disorientation, which is chaos, not knowing what the future holds, being terrified of the unknown. The disciples were just about to enter that season. So, God was equipping them, through Jesus and his love, to help them come out on the other side: the next season, which Brueggemann calls reorientation or new orientation where you come up out of that pit. By the grace of God, you see the light in the darkness again, but you are changed from the experience that you had in that time of disorientation.
I would suggest to you that our global community is very much embedded in that season of disorientation. Our world has been turned upside down. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It’s uncertain; it’s frightening, but ever more urgent that we remember Jesus’ words that he would never leave us or forsake us and would be with us always. If we look for signs of that hope and the light out there, we will see it. If you don’t see that self-sacrificial love in the first responders, the grocery store workers, the package deliverers, the bus drivers—people who are putting their own lives at risk for you and for me, out of love . . .
Just last week I saw what Mr. Rogers would have characterized as one of the helpers. Years ago, he talked to children that when they were frightened, if they would just look for the helpers, they would see them. When you see the helpers, you see hope. This helper came in the form of a seven-year-old boy living just across the river in Ashburn, Virginia: Zohaib Begg. You see, Zohaib spent some of the early years of his life in the hospital. During that time, he developed a great affection, respect and connection with the doctors and nurses who brought him back to health. When he was reading about the coronavirus and the fact that so many hospitals weren’t equipped with the personal protection equipment that they needed, he knew he needed to act.
This seven-year-old helper had the idea of going to hotels in the area to see if they would donate shower caps. What he discovered in the process was they not only had shower caps, they had masks and gloves. So Zohaib set a goal. He wanted to beat the National Cathedral’s tally of 5,000 masks that we donated to some local hospitals. And guess what? He not only met that goal, he exceeded it. Zohaib contributed 6,009 articles of PPEs to hospitals in the area. You go, Zohaib! I hope at some point in time, I’ll have the opportunity to meet you and thank you in person. For when you see the helpers, you see hope.
I know that in this time, one of the greatest pastoral heartbreaks for so many people, is due to social distancing and the virus, is not being with their loved ones when they are sick and when they are dying. That is truly heartbreaking. But I want to share a personal experience with you of a way that we must be creative in these times. I share this experience with permission. About two weeks ago, our dearest friends, John and Margaret Dalton, called me on a Sunday afternoon because Margaret’s mother, who was in Texas, was close to death and she couldn’t be with her. Of course, she was heartbroken. I went over to be with them and as I was putting on my collar and getting my prayer book, it occurred to me that while we couldn’t physically be present, with technology, we could at least be connected.
When I arrived at their home and from a safe distance, I asked if they would be open to our praying with Margaret’s mother with FaceTime, knowing that their niece Maggie was right there with Margaret’s mother, Maggie’s grandmother. So together, with FaceTime, Margaret and John had a chance to tell Carolyn Ogilvie how much they loved her and that they were with her and that God was with her. Then we prayed the prayers that are commonly known as the last rites, committing her to God and blessing her to God’s care. Carolyn died the next day. It wasn’t the same as being there in person, but it was one way that we could spiritually be connected and to commend her to God for eternity.
These times call for expressing love in so many different and new ways for all of us. Last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth said that “better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” That is true. But my prayer for all of us is that we learn the lessons of this time in disorientation: the things that we have seen with clarity and the things that need to be changed, like the fact that the majority of deaths disproportionately are among people of color in this country. Injustices and inequities are with us and we must change together, loving one another as Jesus loved us.
I pray that this time of connecting in deeper and different sorts of ways won’t give way to considering a relationship being held by email and a text. There’s much we have to learn. Jesus shows us the way and gives us a commandment: that we love one another as he has loved us. These times are uncertain but know with assurance that God is with us and will see us through this.
I leave you with words that have given me courage and strength throughout my adult life. They were written by my paternal grandfather in his well-worn Bible, and the words are these. Faith is the ability to be so sure of God that no matter how dark the day, there’s no doubt as to the outcome.
May God bless you and keep you this day and always. Amen.