Central Idea: God will not leave us orphans, He promises to comfort us in our fear and loneliness.
Trivia question for you: What do the following people have in common? Musician Louis Armstrong, Hall of Fame ball player Babe Ruth, Academy Award Winning Actress Frances McDormand, the writers Edgar Allen Poe and Leo Tolstoy, and the man on our twenty dollar bill, President Andrew Jackson.
You might be surprised to learn that they were all orphans.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
Technically speaking, I guess you could call me an orphan, both of my parents have passed. But normally we reserve that title for someone younger, someone more vulnerable. Although not a huge problem in North America, parentless children are growing in number in the Third World. In Africa, for instance, primarily because of the scourge of AIDS, 12% of the total number of children are orphans. And in some countries that number is edging up to nearly 20%. What happens to a society when one out of every five children has to fend for themselves? Well, we know what happens in Russia. According to reports cited in the New York Times, 650,000 children are housed in orphanages in Russia. They are released at age 16. 40% become homeless, while 30% become criminals or commit suicide. Not quite like the exciting narratives and quirky fates of Harry Potter and Little Orphan Annie, is it?
Think about this for a moment. Can you imagine the day to day struggle? Can you imagine the fear and the helplessness? Can you imagine what it might be like to not know where your next meal may come from, or where you may lay your head at night, but what it is like to be without someone to rock you to sleep, or to soothe your panic, or calm your dread? We take so much for granted, don’t we? Something as basic someone to reassure us, to ease our pain, to help us make it through the nightmare.
In our gospel today, Jesus at the Last Supper tells his disciples that he will not leave them orphaned. I am not crazy for the King James translation of the Scriptures, but in this case, it gives you a fuller understanding of what Jesus wants to say. That line is translated as “I will not leave you comfortless.” Christ reminds us that we are not left on our lonesomes, we are not simply to fend for ourselves. He promises us the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the power of God that lets us know, in no uncertain terms, that we are not alone, we are not abandoned, we are not without help, without aid, without comfort.
Without that blessed assurance, without our faith, we are adrift, aimless, purposeless, directionless. Without our faith, without the promise of the Holy Spirit we are truly orphans, comfortless. And just like an orphan plagued society, when we feel abandoned, alone, forgotten, all sort of bad, ugly things begin to happen.
So how do we encounter this Spirit, how do we feel the comfort of God, how do we know Christ did not leave us orphans?
First, we have our community, the Church. Has the Church in the past been neglectful and even careless of the most vulnerable and exposed of its members? Undoubtedly. But I will go on the record and state that for every horror story, for every incidence of shameful abuse, there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of other stories of hope, of love, of goodness, of support. When my brother died in 2013, it was the church, Neier Parish, the Borgia community, my family and friends, my brother priests, and untold others, who were the instruments of the Holy Spirit bringing comfort, bringing encouragement, gladdening my heart. At times, folks focus on the bad things so much that they miss the overpowering goodness that is all around us.
Second, our God is a God of hope. Boy, o boy, if there is some word we need right now in our world it is a word of hope. I am not saying that we should ignore reality, not at all, but I do agree with JRR Tolkein when he wrote in the Lord of the Rings: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” I discover this hope primarily in my prayer which reminds me, day in and day out, that death and sadness and darkness and certainly not this insidious virus, do not have the final say.
Finally, we discover the comfort of the Spirit in unlikely and surprising ways. At the end of every school year, one of our teachers makes our graduating Seniors write letter to the faculty. I was always shocked by who writes to me. Often it is a student that I barely ever talked to throughout their years at Borgia. This still happens. This past week, I got a note from a former student about something I told him “Back in the Day,” as the kids say, which made a profound impact on him. I didn’t even remember it. Students will talk about how one little thing someone said or did made an enormous impact on their lives. I am continually amazed how something, often an off handed comment could mean the world to someone, bringing them comfort, bringing them joy.
All those orphans I mentioned at the beginning of my homily had someone in their lives who made that kind of an impact. For Babe Ruth it was a religious brother, for Frances McDormand it was a minister and his wife who adopted her, for Louis Armstrong it was a Lithuanian-Jewish family, the Karnofsky’s who took him in. (You didn’t see that one coming.)
Who are the orphans in your sphere of influence? Who are those people who need a good word of comfort? To whom will you give the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter?
“Jesus said, ‘I am the way. . .”
Life is really pretty simple. You are born, you live and you die. Along the way you aim for your goals, you learn to live for others. So, if it is so simple, why aren’t we all saints? Or why are we so unhappy? Or why is it so difficult? Well. . .
It is scary how much like golf, life is. You play enough golf you begin to see some amazing comparisons. Keeping your life in the fair way is the key to life; it is the key to achieving your goals, especially your ultimate ones. More vitally, when we stray from the path, when we find ourselves in the deep rough of sin, when we discover that we have strayed into the trees of bitterness, when we are lost in the high grass, the gorse of resentment, life becomes infinitely more difficult, painful, frustrating and hopeless. Life is tough enough without getting into the junk; our sinfulness, our carelessness makes it more so.
One of the privileges of being a priest is celebrating Reconciliation with people. Hearing confessions if you will. Obviously, I cannot tell you what people have said, but I can speak in broad strokes and tell you in general what I hear. (I am not breaking the seal of confession.)
People share with me how they have wandered from the way. They tell me how what seemed like a good idea, what seemed like the way of life was actually a block, a place of wearisome farce and pain. At times, people get so far off the way that they wonder if they should just quit. It is then that I teach them the lessons of my golf game. Like I said, I know what it is like playing golf on places that are not the fairway. When you get in the thick stuff, don’t try to get tricky and think you can get out easily. Don’t shoot for the miracle shot, the one in a million way out. Often that just makes matters worse. Instead, swallow your pride, chip out, or add a stroke, take a drop and move on to the next hole. Life is similar. When you stray from the way, be humble, take your lumps, ask for forgiveness and move on.
The truth of golf and life is that it is rare that anyone stays on the fairway all the time. (60% is generally considered pretty good for golf.) That is why our God continually calls us to conversion, continually seeks us in the rough places and puts us back on the way. This morning I ask you to consider where you have strayed and recognize how vital it is to your life, to you achieving your ultimate goals, to return to the way, the path of life.
It is the best way to play golf.
It is the best way to follow Christ.