“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
My friend Martha moved to New Orleans this summer. We have been friends for over two decades, functioning like adopted family for each other. Martha is an Episcopal priest, so she also had to leave her congregation in New Canaan.
As she was talking about saying goodbye to them, she said, “When you leave someone, you don’t just say goodbye—you entrust one another to God.” I consider Martha something of an authority on saying goodbye—she’s done a lot of it. She served as an intentional interim minister for over a decade, and in that time served five congregations--That’s a lot of goodbyes. Not to mention that much of the work of an interim is to help people say goodbye well So that they are ready to embrace a new chapter in their congregation’s life.
On top of her professional expertise, Martha has had to say some pretty hard goodbyes in her personal life.She has moved five times since I’ve known her, became an empty nester, and divorced her first husband.She buried her 2nd husband and a teenaged son; she cared for two dear friends in her own home until they died. Martha knows about saying goodbye.
“When you leave someone, you don’t just say goodbye—you entrust one another to God.”
I have thought a lot about what Martha meant by that statement. Often times when we ‘entrust someone to God’ we are letting go--Like letting go of the kid going off to college or someone who has died.We feel helpless, and in an almost last ditch attempt, we reluctantly give someone over to God’s care. It’s kind of like saying, “there’s nothing left to do, we might as well pray.” But that’s not what Martha was talking about. She was talking about entrusting another person to God as a way of experiencing continued connection. You see, everyone is ultimately included in the dynamic of God’s love. This love holds us together, even when we are physically apart. It is a love modeled in the love of the Trinity, where Father and Son are distinct and yet interconnected.
We are invited into that love, that unity, into the mystical truth that we are not separate from one another because we are not separate from God who holds us all in love. This is what Jesus had been trying to get at when he called himself the Bread of Life. In our Gospel lesson today, he speaks graphically about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Beyond the ick factor and zombie images, Jesus is saying something really important: That like the food we digest which becomes the building blocks of our bodies When we accept Jesus, we take him into ourselves, and he becomes part of us, and we part of him. What is true on a metabolic level is also true on a spiritual level: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” From there it is a short step to unity with God, for Jesus has already said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and later he will admit, “The Father and I are one.” But I want to return to the words Jesus shares in today’s gospel: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The word ‘abide’ here is an important word in the Gospel of John: It means to remain or to stay or to dwell. It means that Jesus builds a home inside us, and that we live in him. Together we abide within Christ—all of humanity finds a home there – and therefore we also, together, find a home within God. It is not an temporary thing, like choosing to visit a friend; It is a forever thing—it is the reality even when we don’t acknowledge or see it. Perhaps this is why we experience most vividly being a part of God’s abiding presence in hard times. These are the times in which we come to our own limits; we can no longer manage or see a way forward. We have no choice but to surrender ourselves to God. And then, mysteriously, we are being held: We are fortified, strengthened, in ways we didn’t think possible. Life is still incredibly hard, and yet we make it through more day. We see God’s hand at work in the tiniest of mercies. It is like the old saying about the footprints in the sand— During the hard times there is only one set of footprints, because God was carrying us. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus was trying to help his listeners to tune into the ways that they were connected to God and one another. He wanted them to know that separateness is an illusion. It’s what we are talking about when we confess that we are part of the communion of saints It’s what happens when we sing the Holy Holy with Christians of every time and place. We are connected. We are encircled in God’s care and protection. We live in the medium of God’s love, which flows to us and through us. Our unity with and in Jesus, God’s abiding presence, is important for us today as we give thanks for Michelle’s ministry and say goodbye to her. It is important as dear friends like Dot and Dwayne who have been long time members move away.
It is a reminder to us that goodbyes are necessary for something new to arise. And yet we do not have to disconnect or become distant to one another. We stay connected in the love of God. We entrust one another to God, and we know it will be OK.
One thing that Martha always did in her goodbyes was make ample room for celebration. She concluded each ministry with a big party, inviting people beloved the congregation and to her To join a worship service and meal. At these celebrations, there would always be time for sharing stories and gratitude, And, because Martha was a musician, singing. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that what Martha chose to do on the year anniversary of her son Daniel’s death, Was to commission a new hymn to be written in Daniel’s honor. She invited her closest friends to support her in the endeavor— To read the texts and give feedback, to sing through the drafts of music so she could hear it.
At times there were tears--- but it was also an affirmation of life, Daniel’s life, And the life that Martha continued to share with him, and with all of us, her friends, In the abiding love of God that surrounds and fills us.
Today is a day of celebration for us, too, as we remember and share stories, As we sing together and give thanks to God for this season of life we have shared with Michelle, Dot and Dwayne.
And as we lift our voices, we join with that heavenly song that is always being sung Praise to One who unites us into One Body The One in whom we abide, and who abides in us. Amen.