**photograph: Ahmaud Arbery and his mother Wanda Cooper Jones. KSLA News on May 7, 2020. ksla.com/2020/05/07
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020
[sermon begins after Bible reading]
John 14:15-21 [Jesus said to his disciples] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
“Be safe, have fun, use your power for good.” My poor kids and their friends heard me say goodbye this way countless times. It is short, to the point, and includes the main things. It is a fond farewell. The Gospel of John reading today is a continuation from last Sunday and it too is part of a fond farewell. So much so that chapters 14 through 17 are called Jesus’ Farwell Discourse. Jesus doesn’t quite boil it down with my motherly efficiency but it’s possible that he has a little more on his mind. In chapter 13, he wrapped up the last meal that he would eat with his friends before his trial and death. Jesus washed the feet of the friend who would betray him, the feet of another one who would deny knowing him, and the feet of the rest of his friends who would desert him as he’s executed.
Jesus explained their clean feet by telling them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” In Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, he continued to explain it to them. Because when you say goodbye, it’s important to cover the main things. The main things in our reading today being Jesus’ commandments that will be kept in love by his followers AND that another Advocate besides Jesus will be given to them while they keep the commandments. Remember that the commandment Jesus gave them was to love each other as Jesus loved them. Remember that Jesus loved the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters as he washed their feet.
Their clean feet are an important preface to the reading today. Jesus’ commandments aren’t easy-peasy virtue points. Jesus’ example of love is what led to his execution. Thank God we’re given the Holy Spirit as an Advocate on our way or we’d never even get close to what Jesus demands of us. Because Jesus’ demand comes with a lot of grace that we’re not going to get it right even as we take the next right step. Grace allows us to be in motion when we’re not sure what’s being asked of us. The reminder of grace in our regular worship in the form of confession and forgiveness has been missing these last few weeks of distancing. Those beautiful moments of honesty at the beginning of worship when we speak the truth of who we are as fragile, failed creatures and hear a word of God’s good forgiveness and grace in reply. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to acknowledge our failures and to strengthen us for the love demanded of us.
Failures that we call sin are both individual and societal. There are moments when our solitary action or inaction creates real pain for someone nearby – a family member or a friend or a stranger in the store. Those kinds of sins are sometimes easy to identify. Remember the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters? We can give them names – Judas, Peter, and the other disciples. We know what they did. They know what they did. None of it’s a secret.
Identifying societal sins is more difficult because we set up camps that justify our self-righteous behavior. The louder that one side rants about the other is heard as validation. We might be right, goes the distorted logic, if that other group we hate is screaming at us about how wrong we are being. A contradictory validation but one that is alive and well at the moment. Let’s go back in time a bit. Oh, I don’t know, say, 66 years. 66 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional even if they happened to be equal in every other way. This landmark decision is known as Brown vs. Board of Education. Some of you lived this history. Segregation was normal, agreed upon by society, until suddenly it wasn’t normal.
Segregation was systemic sin getting named for its failure. A few years later, white adults on the news were screaming at black teenagers as they entered school under the protection of the National Guard. This is a scene that many Americans look back on in horror. Personally, I can’t imagine my education in Pasadena, California, without my school friends and teachers who covered the spectrum of race and skin color from the whitest white to the blackest black. Here’s where the murkiness starts though. The self-righteousness as we justify our own moment and behavior as acceptable without seeing the systemic sin that survives alive and well inside ourselves creating norms in society at large.
Fast-forward to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing this past February. He was a black man. The men who shot him were white. Arguments abound about who was right and wrong. It’s exhausting. But, once again, we can look to that case and call it a problem between individuals. Frankly, that’s too easy. We live in a country where living while black can be a death sentence no matter what black people are doing; a country where black and brown folks are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate then their percentage of the population. We have some explaining to do.
And I don’t mean explaining it away by blaming the people who are dying. I mean looking at the unconscious and conscious agreements we make as a society to protect white bodies and sacrifice black and brown bodies to essential tasks with higher risks for COVID-19 exposure. This is where Christian language of sin and evil is important because we can do something about it when we give it a name.
Naming sin and evil as sin and evil is especially vital when it’s systemic and deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. We know something is seriously wrong when I as a white mother can say something simple to my kids – be safe, have fun, and use your power for good – while my friends who are black mothers say something entirely different about safety to their children when they leave the house – keep your hands visible when you’re pulled over and follow the police officer’s directions. Ask your black friends in your town about getting pulled over. Another exhausting part of this whole thing is that we white folks play a part in racism even if we think we’re doing really well. We explain it away rather than confessing and confronting the racism in our own behavior and the public policies we support on education, healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure.
When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, he says we’re not only guilty of breaking this commandment when we do evil to our neighbor but we break it when we fail to defend, protect, and prevent their bodily harm.  Along this line, we let white friends get away with racism in our casual conversations about certain neighborhoods, or immigrant cultures, or how certain people of color dress or cut their hair. As if any of that is available to our interpretation and something we can weigh in on; as if any of that adds no societal harm to black and brown bodies.
Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His command to love was first embedded in his own body – the body that was the Word made flesh, the body that washed feet and forgave, the body that died on a cross, and the body that was raised to new life on the first Easter morning. Jesus also says to his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God’s love had body. We too have bodies in which Jesus promises to live as the Advocate of the Holy Spirit strengthens us to keep Jesus’ commandment to love each other as he first loved us. As he first loved us when we were betrayers, deniers, and deserters, and as he continues to love us just the same.
Beloved bodies of God, go in peace to love and serve your neighbor. You won’t be safe, you might have fun, and the Spirit’s power will be used for good. Thanks be to God. And amen.
And now receive this blessing adapted from the worship Confession and Forgiveness…
Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,
Who forgives sin and brings life from death.
May Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.
May God forgive your sins, known and unknown, things you have done and failed to do.
May you be turned again to God, upheld by the Spirit,
So that you may live and serve God in newness of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. In the name of ☩ Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.
 John 13:34
 Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for the Sixth Sunday of Easter posted May 9, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1262
 Little Rock Nine, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html
 Ibid., Moore.