All Saints’, Dorval
May 14, 2023
My “guerrilla garden,” spring 2020
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. … I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
It’s Easter season; the spring weather has been glorious for the last week or so. And in our gospel reading, it’s also spring: as was the case last week as well, Jesus says these words to the disciples over the Passover meal on the occasion of the Last Supper, the night before the Crucifixion. He is trying, in a last-ditch effort, to get them to understand what will happen next, to trust God, and not to be overwhelmed with anxiety.
In my first and second years of college, I had terrible episodes of depression and anxiety in the spring semester, precisely as the weather was warming, the days were lengthening, and everything was supposed to be getting better – right?
It hasn’t been quite as bad since then, but I have gradually learned about myself that I am someone who has the reverse of the usual seasonal depression: I feel enthusiastic, optimistic, and energized in the autumn and winter, and nervous, stressed and cynical in the spring and summer. One of the reasons for this is simply that I hate hot weather (and the cultural pressure to like warmth and dislike cold is so strong, it took me an extraordinarily long time to figure this out).
But another reason – and why it was so particularly bad those two years I was 18 and 19 – is that during a spring semester when one is in university, everything is up in the air. You are probably supposed to find a job for the summer, and it’s supposed to be something prestigious and interesting and related to your future career plans, but that probably hasn’t come together yet and you’re afraid of landing at home with your parents with nothing lined up, and will you ever be a successful adult if you don’t get a good internship that will lead to a job offer when you graduate, and in the meantime there’s a mountain of papers and exams to get over, and that’s when it’s tempting to crawl into bed in your dorm room and pull the covers over your head.
At the beginning of the school year, with a new outfit and a shiny new class schedule and a backpack full of freshly sharpened pencils, I knew where I stood and how to succeed. At the end, facing the amorphous challenges of life in the real world? Not so much.
And I suspect the disciples felt much the same way. With Jesus, they might not always have felt like they understood what was going on, but he was in charge, and things were good, and they felt like they knew where they stood. But now he was telling them he was going away, and suddenly the future felt terribly ill-defined.
Jesus did his best. He promised them the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the “comforter,” who would abide with them. He promised them truth, and life, and love, that he and they and the Father would always be connected. But no amount of reassurance could entirely mask the simple fact that they were going to have to go on without him. They must have felt their sudden abandonment profoundly. I’m actually kind of impressed that they didn’t lose it completely.
By the time John wrote this passage, two generations later, those who had known Jesus in the flesh were dying off, and so the nascent Christian community once again had to figure out how to relate to Jesus at one more remove than they were used to. But the Way of Jesus was clearly increasing in numbers and in discipleship, and so they could point to innumerable ways in which the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, was indeed present and acting among them. They could look at the ways that they loved each other, God, and the world, and say “this is the fulfillment of the words of Jesus.” They had evidence of their oneness, of God abiding with them. There was no longer that scared, hollow feeling of abandonment. They could see the words and work of Jesus – and their own work in response – bearing fruit.
And “bearing fruit” is an appropriate term in this context, because the other thing about spring is, it’s planting season. In fact, this coming Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the traditional Rogation Days, leading up to Ascension Day on Thursday. Rogation was observed – and still is, in some places – with processions in which fields and newly planted crops would be blessed.
If there’s anything filled with anxiety and uncertainty, it’s planting a crop. You have no idea if seeds will sprout, if the baby plants will grow and thrive, if they’ll set fruit; if there will be a harvest, or if the whole crop will be lost to pests, groundhogs, weird weather, disease, or mysterious nutrient deficiencies in the soil. There’s a reason that planting a garden is a classic metaphor for life in general, and for faith in particular. The only way to approach it is with hope, imagination, a little bit of prayer, and a radical openness to whatever happens.
Once the harvest is in and we can relax, it’s easy – at least comparatively so – to look back at what happened and find the story, the patterns that explain what was going on, whether it’s a cold snap, a drought, or an epic battle with squash vine borers. John looks back at Jesus’ discourse at the last supper and sees it fulfilled in the lives of Jesus’ followers in the growing church. I can look back at the last quarter-century or so of my life and see the many ways in which God has been working, through my experiences, the people I encountered, and my own growth as a human being.
But at the same time, each of us, always, is also looking forward into the future, a future that remains unknown and very possibly scary. And in each and every one of our possible futures, God will be with us, as Spirit, Advocate, Comforter. We will still abide in God’s love. We will still be united with the Father through the Son. And someday, we will be able to look back and see where God was working all along. And perhaps, just perhaps, that will enable us to recognize a little bit more quickly where God is working right now.
This is my second-to-last sermon before I begin my sabbath leave. I imagine there is some anxiety in the congregation right now. But I’ve been here long enough to know that you all can do remarkable things together when you put your minds to it. You don’t need a priest to tell you what to do. There will no doubt be some hiccups and some things that nobody anticipated, but God will be with you, present as Spirit. The future may not be clear, but God is working, and we all are in God, abiding in love.