This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 14:23-29.
There’s a story sometimes told among Buddhists. It goes something like this.
During the time of the Buddha, there lived a woman named Kisa Gotami. She got married, and gave birth to a son. One day, the baby fell sick and died soon after. Kisa Gotami loved her son greatly and refused to believe that he was dead. She carried his body around her village, asking if there was anyone who can bring her son back to life.
The villagers all saw that the child was already dead and there was nothing that could be done. In great grief, she fell upon her knees and clutched her son’s body close to her body. She kept pleading for her son to wake up.
A village elder took pity on her and suggested to her to consult the Buddha. Perhaps he could help.
She immediately went to the Buddha’s residence and pleaded for him to bring her son back to life.
After a moment, the Buddha said to her, “Kisa Gotami, I have a way to bring your son back to life.”
“My Lord, I will do anything to bring my son back.”
“If that is the case, then I need you to find me something. Bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one residing in the house has known grief. Bring this seed back to me and your son will come back to life.”
Kisa Gotami went from house to house, trying to find the mustard seed.
At the first house, a young woman offered to give her some mustard seeds. But when Kisa Gotami asked if she had ever grieved, the young women said her grandmother died a few months ago.
She moved on to the 2nd house. A husband died a few years ago. The 3rd house lost an uncle and the 4th house lost an aunt. She kept moving from house to house but the answer was all the same – every house knew grief.
Kisa Gotami finally came to realise that there is no one in the world who had never known grief. She now understood that death is inevitable and a natural part of life.
Putting aside her grief, she buried her son in the forest. Shen then returned to the Buddha and became his follower.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus is also helping his disciples to deal with grief. Just like the story we heard last Sunday, today’s words come from the Farewell Discourse in the gospel of John, words that Jesus said to his disciples just hours before he was arrested. Jesus knew he was about to leave them. He would soon be arrested and killed. And even though he would rise again, he also knew that he wouldn’t be with them for very long after the resurrection.
This coming Thursday, May 26, is the Day of Ascension, which marks the fortieth day of Easter, the fortieth day after the resurrection. On that day, Luke tells us, Jesus rose again into heaven, never to be seen in the flesh again.
Jesus knew, I believe, that this was coming. He knew that his disciples would experience grief and loneliness. And he wanted them to know that they were never, ever alone.
Here in the Farewell Discourse Jesus tells them, “I will never leave you abandoned.” And I think he’s saying that to us today.
Grief is universal. Grief is the normal reaction to the loss of someone we love. Grief is complicated. It includes deep sadness, and often anger, and despair. Sometimes guilt, sometimes relief, sometimes other things.
One of the hallmarks of grief is a profound loneliness. Losing someone we love leaves a hole just as big as our love for that person. All of us who have grieved know that loneliness. And grief is not the only source of loneliness.
There is the loneliness of being rejected.
There is the loneliness of being in a new and unfamiliar place, or a new job, a new school, a new phase of life.
There is the loneliness of being overwhelmed with busyness and activity, feeling unable to find the time to connect with yourself.
There is the loneliness of being betrayed by someone you trust.
There is the loneliness of being different from those around you, feeling like nobody understands you.
There is the loneliness of not being seen. And perhaps you feel even more lonely if I haven’t mentioned your particular reason for loneliness.
This world is filled with people who are lonely. Eleanor Rigby was right.
I think that in the Buddhist story of the mustard seed, Kisa Gotami learns on her journey that even though she is terribly lonely, she is not alone.
And I think that the words Jesus speaks in today’s gospel are spoken to the lonely of all times and places. He says this:
“My father and I will come to you and make our home with you.”
He says this:
“The Companion, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything and remind you of everything I told you.”
He says this:
“I am returning to you.”
He says this:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Jesus promised these things to his disciples, and that promise was fulfilled. Although he left them, he did not leave them abandoned. The book of Acts is overflowing with stories of the early church overflowing with the Spirit, with the life of Jesus within and among them, with the peace of God.
This promise still comes true today. If you are lonely today, hear this: it’s okay that you feel that way. It’s normal to sometimes feel alone and abandoned. But Christ promises you that you are not alone.
Christ is coming to you. The Holy Spirit is coming to you. And one of the most profound ways Christ does that is through his own body. The Holy Spirit comes to you through the body of Christ whenever we share Holy Communion together. And the Holy Spirit also comes to you through the other meaning of the body of Christ, the people of Christ in the world. As Paul wrote, you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. You are the way Christ comes to lonely people in the world today. You, the body of Christ, are the ones called to be Christ’s very presence in and among the people of the world.
So I send you out with a message for you, and a message to share. The message is this: You are not alone. You are never alone, because the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called the Companion, is with you. You are never alone, because you are a part of the body of Christ, and you are surrounded by us.
Hear that. Embrace that. Breathe that in.
And share that. This promise is not just for us. It’s for everyone in the world. Everyone who is lonely. Keep your eyes open this week for someone who is lonely. Maybe it’s someone here in this room. Maybe it’s someone in your family, or at your workplace, or in your school. Maybe it’s a complete stranger. Someone out there is lonely right now, and needs to know that they are not alone. Show them. Spend time with them. Listen to them.
Be the companion they need, if only for a moment. And the amazing thing is that by sharing in this way, by being present to another in their loneliness, that’s precisely the moment when we feel least lonely. That’s precisely the moment we are most who we were made to be. That’s precisely the moment that we experience the peace that only Christ can give.
Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash
One thought on “On Loneliness (Sermon)”
I once heard that when we are alone, it’s because God wanted some time with us. I love and am grateful for your work, Michael.