Seventh Sunday of Easter – John 17:1-8; Acts 1:1-1, To Tell the Story –
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Laureate, and Holocaust survivor said “God is God because God remembers.” Beyond fleeting thoughts, through living memory the Divine is real in our faithfulness. Wiesel explains: When the great Rabbi Israel Bal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, he went to a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire and say a special prayer. A miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, Maggid of Mezeritch, had reason to intercede with the divine, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And it would be enough; the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Moshe-Leib of Sassov, to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know the prayer or how to light the fire, but I know the place; and this must be sufficient.” And it was. The miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and don’t know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was.[i]
That’s what Jesus urges us to do—tell the story. According to John, it’s the night of Jesus’ betrayal. At the Last Supper, he emphasized the greatest commandment to love. There is no greater love, he encouraged or warned, than to give your life for others. He hints that’s precisely what’s likely to happen to himself. He prepares them for when they’ll scatter each to their own home, with him become memory. And even as the fires of betrayal have been lit he’s goes to as good a forest as they have—the olive grove in Gethsemane—and he prays: “God, Master of the Universe, sanctify them—that is, strengthen, guide, purify their hearts and propel them in the good work of love I began, which continues in them.” Thus, the glory of God—the presence and power of Holy Love remains alive and active, touching hearts, changing lives, transforming our world. “As you have sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send them—us—into the world” … on behalf of all who benefit by our words and deeds of sacrificial love; who come to believe, to give their hearts, and join the ever-flowing stream of Sacred Grace across all ages and places.
Sure would have been easier if one of Jesus’ disciples had a smartphone! Imagine Peter posting a selfie with Jesus walking on the waves! Think of all the possible podcasts of his great lessons—in sermons on the mount or beside the sea! Or video clips of miracles that could fill Twitter and YouTube! There he is, Jesus, popping up again, copied into your Facebook newsfeed.
In our living faith we’re more somewhere between the third and fourth generations in Elie Wiesel’s story; much like early Christians by the time the Bible was really written, compiled, passed around. We weren’t there to witness events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—fires of Holy Love revealed therein. We have no recorded transcript of exact words Jesus said. Maybe we can go to a place where holy things might have happened. Mostly we have the living memory of stories to tell. We have hard moments when we hold our head in our hands. When burdens of misfortune weigh upon our hearts, our hopes. When we feel need for salvation—for God’s presence and power to bring us life amid … what is it for you? a diagnosis? Death? Addiction? broken relations? Sadness over events like Manchester, natural disasters, our neighbors who struggle to work, to eat, to keep a home, to raise kids. Maybe on this weekend, we remember someone beloved who gave their life through sacrificial service in the worst human places of violence. Yes, friends, we have head-in-hands moments, just as we have joyful moments when we might raise our hands to heaven in praise. And though we can’t stand around those fires of Holy Love Jesus lit long ago, somehow God kindles in us, among us, new fires of the Spirit’s power and purpose making these Sacred stories and promises real for our lives.
That’s what the Ascension stories today and Pentecost next week try to express. The Loving Power that raised Jesus from death, heals our hurts, forgives our failings, empowers us to begin living again after our many endings. And we go bear witness. That’s the miracle accomplished … among us and myriad ordinary saints gone before or yet to come. The Spirit comes upon us, within us, through us to enflame us. And long after apostles in Jerusalem and Judaea, we tell the story, we share the good news much like Jesus went on his way to the heavenly reign of God’s Commonwealth. That is, we live grace toward the fullness of peace in all the ways we share a meal, chat about news, encounter people in need, and try to make sense and purpose of life, everyday, just as he did. And so his story continues in you and in me.
Here at the font we tell the story of Jesus, our story. God’s story of love in all times and places and in each of our lives. I’m not friends with all of you on Facebook or Instagram, but I expect there will be pictures and posts this afternoon, just maybe already done! Before gathering here today, we were talking about how to explain baptism for their child. God’s love is like water. Trees, flowers, birds, animals, and each of us needs it to survive—to quench our thirst, to cleanse us in a bath. So every time we take a drink or get in the tub or a pool or go to the beach or see puddles in the driveway, remember God loves us.
Of course, friends, when we gather here in our own tradition like Wiesel imagines, in our words, water, and oil nothing magical happens. And … God continues to accomplish the miracle of life and faith. We tell the story of creation out of watery chaos, of ancient Hebrews’ exodus from slavery, and of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. We tell a story that is deeply personal—each individual named and claimed and blessed. Often society seems to stall there, focusing on ruggedly individual achievements attaining abundant life for ourselves. If we’re honest, I suspect our minds can tend to pause with those thoughts and priorities. This beautiful story is about so much more! At the font we remember all the ways we’ve been loved—intimately and anonymously. And God calls us to remember all the ways we can love—to live and serve beyond ourselves in a communal blessing of grace and peace. It’s like water. No individual drop fills the font. All of us together like myriad drops of water, pool God’s grace and fulfill of God’s purpose.
Beyond just a family event, in baptism we remember that whether young or old, rich or poor, strong or weak, each individual’s story becomes God’s story. We remember that our lifelong search for identity, self-worth, meaning, purpose, faith is always ultimately found in the grace and mercy and unending, unfailing, non-forsaking love of God.[ii] We remember our baptism and we’re thankful for the assurance that God’s holy purposes in Jesus Christ continue in us as his body, his presence, his force for good in the world.
And so we tell the story. We tell the story of Holy Love like water we cannot live without. Like water the aunt of one child today brought back when she went to the Jordan River—a place for us not unlike Wiesel’s forest. Before our worship began, we poured her bottle into the font, like all our past experiences, hopes, dreams, disappointments, subconscious senses flooding back into our minds and hearts, pooling here with emotion beyond explanation. Friends, isn’t that why on this beautiful morning we had children come, even from afar, to be baptized where their parents were; where their siblings were; baptized where a preacher great-grandfather devoted his life to loving service. We’re telling our individual stories and God’s story to remember, to bring the past into the present.
And we tell these stories to feel hope amid our uncertainties in the present. As Luke describes the final farewell in Acts, the disciples just want to know: when will God’s reign be fulfilled, completed, no more fears or tears? Friends, as we remember soldiers or beloved family this weekend don’t we all know how that longing feels? When even our best human attempts to construct a good and perfect life as glorious as this sanctuary prove imperfect. Just ask people sitting toward the outer edge of center pews on this side last week. Remember the stormy rain? They felt it blowing through our windows, running down over the stone arches, dripping on them in the middle of worship. If only whoever’s responsible for the weather would’ve coordinated it with today … a reminder of baptism for all! We tell the stories of Jesus and our baptismal faith amid stormy times of life to remember hope in God’s promise of love like water, even if we seem to feel little more than a drip sometimes.
Finally, we tell our stories and God’s story to find courage, strength, and inspiration for the future. Jesus’ farewell conversation in John is filled with variations of the theme of: “love as I have loved, so the world will know God.” As the disciples wait in Jerusalem, they pray for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and their lives will be taken up in endless streams of Sacred Grace. And so, here at the font we pray, we anoint children, we remember our baptism, and then we leave this place, our lives flowing on with Holy Love through all lamentation, with the peace of Christ like a fountain in our hearts. And just maybe … as we are sent by Christ as a living memory of Holy Love,
to someone else who thirsts for a drink of hope amid their own struggle,
or someone who needs to feel bathed / cleansed of something wrong in life,
or someone with joy to celebrate like an afternoon party at the pool,
or someone who simply longs for a moments peace like a walk on the beach,
or everyone who sees God’s goodness puddling among us the beauties of our world …
well, just maybe, as a card I received this morning expressed: because of you and me someone might come to thank God today. And as Jesus prayed, someone might come to believe … and God’s miracle will be accomplished again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 36.
[ii] See Anderson and Foley, 65, 71.