May 24, 2020

Only the Lonely, IV: I Will Not Leave You Orphaned

Passage: John 14:15–27

Click here to listen to the podcast of this sermon.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. —John 14:16

So let’s start this sermon with a pop quiz to test your theological IQ. Why do they call the Church across the street The Church of the Holy Comforter? Discuss. Use the ‘Chat’ section if you think you know the answer. I mean, why would you name your church after the puffy blanket you throw across your Sealy Posturepedic on a cold winter night?

I’d never heard of a church by that name until I moved across the street from one, but it turns out that it’s a very common church name. There’s a Church of the Holy Comforter in Atlanta; Charlotte; Fort Worth; New Orleans; Poughkeepsie; Richmond; Staten Island; Washington, DC; Alabama; Colorado; Florida; Minnesota; South Carolina; and Virginia. Some are Lutheran, some are Roman Catholic, but most of them are Episcopal.

You’ve got it, right? ‘Holy Comforter’ is a synonym for ‘Holy Spirit.’ St. John is the only New Testament writer who uses this vocabulary, but it is his favorite name for the Third Person of the Trinity. ‘Comforter’ is one English translation of the untranslatable Greek word Paraclete.

 Paraclete is untranslatable not because it is opaque or inscrutable but because The Paraclete, The Holy Spirit, does so many things for so many people in so many ways at so many times that it is impossible to pin down the expansive meaning of this rich concept to a single English word. Paraclete is multivalent; its meaning sprawls.

This is apropos of almost nothing but do you know what the Yale Divinity School soccer team is called? Yes, there is a seminary with a soccer team, and they have one of the greatest team names in the history of mascots. Can you guess? Yes they’re the Paracletes. If you’re a theologian, you can say PARAclete, and if you’re a soccer player you can say pair o’ CLEATS.

Paraclete comes from a Greek verb which means ‘to call alongside of.’ A Paraclete is someone you call to stand beside you when you need a friend. The New Revised Standard Version translates Paraclete as ‘Advocate,’ as in ‘defense attorney’ or ‘character witness.’ When you get arrested, you call an attorney to stand beside you under fierce accusation.

 Everybody gets a Paraclete. Even Timothy McVeigh, Bernie Madoff, Dylan Roof, Harvey Weinstein, and Lori Loughlin get legal counsel to advocate their cause. Most of us, thank God, know our Miranda Rights not from personal experience but from Law and Order on TV: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.”

So here’s a fun fact: In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the Holy Spirit synonymous with ‘Legal Counsel.’ You might not have expected that.

MIT has a web page called “Lawyer Jokes.” It is 15 pages long, single-spaced. I counted 78 lawyer jokes. None of them are kind. And I’m not going to tell you even one of them because they’re not fair. Lawyers are Paracletes. They’re like the Spirit of Jesus.

If those metaphors don’t work for you, if you don’t want to think of the Holy Spirit as a puffy blanket or a defense attorney, remember that Paraclete is multivalent.

Other English translations of Paraclete are Encourager, Consoler, Champion. The Greek word Paraclete is so hard to pin down that some English translations just give up and don’t translate it at all; they transliterate it. Paraclete is straight from the Greek.

Human analogs of the divine Paraclete are a Guidance Counselor at high school, a Chaplain in the Hospital, a Therapist when midway the journey of life you are lost in a dark wood alone, a sponsor at AA, a wise Mentor at work, a Pastor at the graveside.

Jo Forrest exercises the office of Paraclete over and over and over again. We call her our Senior Associate Pastor, but maybe we ought to call her our Chief Paraclete.

One more stab at translating this untranslatable Greek word Paraclete into English. Let’s go with Jesus’ imagery. He speaks these words on Maundy Thursday the night before he died. He’s worried about his friends because first he’ll die, and then he’ll rise, and then he’ll leave, until the last of all their days, but he is not leaving them alone.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he promises them. Motherless children, fatherless children, need a Guardian to protect them. The Paraclete is the orphans’ Guardian. The Paraclete is the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.

University of Chicago theologian Paul Tillich talks about the Holy Spirit like this:

The Spirit of Christ is the Power that helps us to strive towards the sublime against the profanity of the average day. The Spirit is the  one who gives us the courage to say "yes" to life in spite of the destructiveness we have experienced around us and within us, the one who can conquer the sloth towards what we know is the aim of our lives.[1]

The Guardian-Paraclete helps us strive towards the sublime against the profanity of the average day, helps us conquer the sloth towards what we know is the aim of our life.

And we can be Paracletes one to another. We can help each strive toward the sublime against the profanity of the average day. We can help each other conquer the sloth towards what we know is the aim of our lives.

Have you seen John Krasinki’s YouTube show SGNSome Good News—John Krasinski who played Jim in The Office? The best thing about SGN is that more than once John Krasinski has convinced his fellow Office cast members to gather in reunion on his YouTube show, and I was watching all these old Office charactersMichael Scott and Dwight Schrute and Andy and Toby and Phyllis and Kevin and Jim and Pam, and I remembered my favorite Office episode of all time.

As you remember, Office Manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is an implausible loser. He gets everything wrong. ALL THE TIME. He is racist, misogynist, homophobic, and less self-aware than our erstwhile leader.

But sometimes he ends up getting it right in spite of himself. Next time you watch The Office, notice how often Michael Scott is an accidental, lame, halting vehicle of God’s grace.

When Pam, the shy, plain receptionist in The Office, who aspires to be an artist, gets her long-awaited art show in Scranton, Pennsylvania, no one from The Office shows up. She accidentally overhears gallery patrons scoffing at her mediocre paintings, and then at the end of the evening when everyone is ready to go home, and Pam is forlornly packing up her paintings, clueless office manager Michael Scott wanders in almost by accident and looks at an amateurish drawing of the Dunder Mifflin office building, and Michael is just awed by its excellence.

Michael knows less than nothing about art; he is as aesthetically clueless as he is socially inept, but the painting is about his world.

“Look, there’s my window. Is that your car? Is that my car?” Plus, it’s printed on paper, and that’s what Dunder Mifflin sells, and he is moved with admiration, and there is a moment of grace. “It’s a masterpiece,” he says, and he buys it, and he hangs it in The Office, and, almost unwittingly, Michael, the clueless manager, gives Pam, the shy, plain receptionist, the courage to conquer the sloth towards what she knows is the aim of her life, and now she will keep hammering away at her craft till she gets it right. That’s what a Paraclete does.

We need each other so much right now. There is so much aloneness. We need to reach across the empty spaces between us to connect, even if only virtually.

A couple of weeks ago in The New Yorker, David Remnick wrote a moving piece about Cady Chaplin. Cady is a 30-year-old ICU nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She lives in Brooklyn, until recently with a roommate, but the roommate fled weeks ago to the relatively safer confines of New Jersey, so Cady has been all alone for weeks.

Normally Lenox Hill has four ICU’s, but now the whole hospital is one big critical care unit for COVID-19 patients. Cady spends her 12-hour shifts in a “blur of sickness, urgency, risk, and loss,” David Remnick writes.

Cady is wary of the platitudes about the heroic work of health care professionals. She says, “This is what we were trained to do. This is what we do. That was true a year ago, and it will be true a year from now.”

Still, it’s hard. When she gets back to her empty studio apartment at the end of a shift, sometimes she just slides to the floor and cries. There’s nothing to do. She paces the apartment and calls friends. For exercise, she shadowboxes with cans of chickpeas in each fist.

Recently, Cady’s parents drove in from Long Island to drop off Lucy, the family’s French bulldog, for company. Cady says, “It will be good to have another heartbeat here.”[2] Just another heartbeat.

That’s Jesus promise to his friends so long ago, and now to us even today. Another heartbeat.

So maybe we’re not as alone as it seems. What if we thought of Christ’s Holy Spirit as the enduring connectivity between me and you, the energy that rockets across the empty space between us, the electricity that arcs from my fingertips to yours, the ether in which we live and move and breathe and have our being?

Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.

[1]Paul Tillich, “Spiritual Presence,” in The Eternal Now (New York: Scribner’s, 1963), 85.

[2]David Remnick, “A City Nurse: Healing in the I.C.U. during COVID-19,” The New Yorker, May 4, 2020, p. 50.