“Into The Woods”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 21, 2017: Easter 6
Acts 17:22-31 & John 14:15-21
My favorite musical is Into The Woods by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Into The Woods is a mash-up of classical fairytales—Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White make an appearance, along with the wolf from The Three Little Pigs and the baker and his wife from Thumbelina. In the musical, the characters are on individual journeys: the baker and his wife are searching for items for a potion that will give them a child, Cinderella is coming and going from royal dance parties, Jack is taking his cow to sell at the market, and Little Red Riding Hood in on her way to granny’s. Eventually, all these characters meet in the woods and get to know one another. But there are consequences for going into the woods: Little Red Riding Hood gets a little too confident of the dark and is swallowed by the wolf, Jack disobeys his mother and sells his cow to the baker for some beans, and the baker and his wife have their child but begin to have doubts about one another. Cinderella meets and settles down with her prince, but she and the prince soon become bored with each other.
As the story unfolds in Act Two, the characters notice particularly large footprints in the woods and trees that have been broken like toothpicks. When all the characters meet together in the woods to see what the trouble is, they realize they have a big, big problem. For you see, when Jack sold his cow to the baker for some beans, he planted the beans and they grew into a mighty stalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk to the house of giants. Jack was in the woods in the first place to sell his cow because he and his mother needed money desperately. So inside the house of giants, while the giant isn’t looking, Jack grabs anything valuable he can put his hands on, and scurries back down the beanstalk. From that point on he and his mother lived quite well. The giant soon came after Jack for stealing all her valuable things, and in the process, she destroys big sections of the woods. But it was the baker who suffered most from Jack’s actions: when the group came together to figure out how to solve the giant problem, the baker could not find his wife. They did find her later, crushed under a tree.
There is conflict after this. Everyone blames everyone else. If the baker hadn’t sold the beans to Jack, there would have been no stalk. If the baker and his wife had been able to have children they would have never gone into the woods. Its a real mess and in one way or another, everyone had some part in the death of the baker’s wife. As the story begins to resolve and the musical comes to an end, the baker is troubled. The baker is troubled because he has a new baby and the baby has no mother. He says, “Maybe I just wasn't meant to have children. And how will I go about being a father with no one to mother my children?” From out of the darkness, a shadowy figure of the bakers wife says, “Of course you were meant to have children. Just calm the child. Tell him the story of how it all happened; be father and mother. You’ll know what to do.” The baker hangs his head and says, “Yes, but alone.”
The shadow of the baker’s wife sings: “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good. You are not alone. No one is alone.”
You are not alone. No one is alone. The whole gospel of John could be summarized with these two short phrases:
You are not alone, No one is alone. John wrote his account of Jesus’ life long after Jesus was gone, which means it was written backwards into a community who only knows Jesus by word of mouth. Most of those in John’s community had never met Jesus. Most, if not all, the disciples were dead. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, which many believed was a sign of the end of the world, but the end did not come. Life went on, which, for many, was the most difficult thing of all. Jesus did not return when all the signs seemed right, when the hopes and expectations of the people were at the highest ever. This community of believers was wrestling with the demon of despair, and slowly despair was winning. John, the gospel writer, knew that despair ultimately leads to death. So it was this John who pull together the events and life of Jesus Christ into a gospel that proclaims to a bruised and beaten community, “You are not alone,” and “No one is alone.”
We see this magnificent reality really begin to shimmer on the night that Jesus was betrayed. That night he ate dinner with his friends and he gave a long speech. It was a last lecture of sorts, the sort that a retiring professor gives at the end of their career. These last lectures are a snapshot of a lifetime of wisdom, and we heard part of Jesus’ last lecture last Sunday. Today we heard more. Jesus said things like, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” and, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” and, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those whose love me.” “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is likely that those last two troubled the disciples most of everything Jesus said that night.
It is not the content that troubled them, though. In fact, Jesus is really clear: do what I’ve told you to do, and love each other. In theory, and sometimes in practice, those are simple things to do. Live as Jesus did; love as Jesus did. Fairly simple, really. But Jesus is about to leave them, and that is where it gets hard. Sure, while Jesus is with them it is easy to keep his commandments and love one another. It is easy to love each other when Jesus is there to settle disputes; it is easy to follow his commandments when he is there showing the way. But Jesus is on the way out, and he is leaving the entirety of his legacy to the disciples. What are they going to do? How will they go about this journey of love and obedience without their friend and teacher? As they step out of the comfortable and familiar, and into the woods where it is dark and unknown, as Thomas said, how will they know the way?
Jesus called his disciples to live and love in ways that seem impossible. That is the probably the most difficult component of Christian faith: the doing. Jesus did not just ask the disciples to remember him; he called them to remember and then go and do just as he did. The truth is, they couldn’t do it, at least not on their own. So Christ said, “I will never leave you orphaned.” This was his way of promising that the disciples would never be alone on the journey, in the woods, or anywhere else. Christ fulfilled this promise with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Advocate, like someone who stands beside you in a court of law. At other times he called the Holy Spirit the Helper, like someone who offers you a hand when you’ve fallen down. Jesus even called the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth. When Jesus said, “I am coming to you,” he did not mean he would return to the disciples like an old friend after a long journey. Instead, Jesus was saying that he would be with them in a different way. The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep in creation, who knit together the disciples in their mother’s wombs, that is how Jesus will come to the disciples. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus keeps to his word that they will never be orphaned. This Spirit will tie the disciples to Jesus in an unbreakable bond. It is this Spirit that will show them how to love and live like Jesus. It is this Spirit that will illuminate the path through the woods. It is this Spirit that will come and speak gently to them, “You are not alone. No one is alone.”
Towards the end of the evening and the meal, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” Jesus was ready to go to the garden to pray. You can almost see him getting up from the table, but he stops for a moment because he has one final thing to say. He says, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower…abide in me as I abide in you.” It is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that the disciples will be tied to Jesus Christ when he is gone. Through the Spirit they will learn to love one another. Through the Spirit they will stay connected to Jesus. Through the Spirit they will bask in God’s presence, and the presence of their fellow disciples, forever.
I read something rather odd this week. It said, “The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home.” Whoever said that was playing just a bit. We know that mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there is some truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many climbers are tempted to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” The life of faith can be like that. The mountain is steep and the climb is treacherous; doubt and denial and sadness and fear creep in, or even rush in. It’s quite challenging some days and easy to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” And this is just in our personal relationship with God; this is to say nothing about when we try to love and serve and live with one another. Jesus knew, I think, that there would be days like this. So he told his disciples, and you and me, that we are tied to him like branches on a vine, or like climbers tied to the rope. The Holy Spirit ties us together and there is nothing that can break that bond. It is this Spirit that helps us to trust in God who we can not always understand. It is this Spirit that keeps moving us ahead on the journey of faith. It is this Spirit that encourages us to believe and trust what Jesus said: “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, believe in the good news of the Gospel today: you are not alone, no one is alone. Far beyond the closing number of a musical, this is the truth of our faith in Jesus Christ. We go into the woods on a daily basis, sometimes to find something, sometimes because we just need some place to go. The woods in this world are dark, dimly light, full of shadows, and riddled with danger of all kinds. There are temptations that would love to draw you away from the path that leads to life; there are voices that call to you to look here or look there, to look anywhere but where you are going. But you are not alone; no one is alone.
The Holy Spirit has come just as Christ promised, and the Holy Spirit has tied you, grafted you, into Christ, and to your fellow brothers and sisters in faith. You may wander, but you will never be lost; you may face what seems like an eternity of darkness, but light will not over come it; you may feel as though you are slipping into the abyss without any hope of being saved, but you will be pulled back. The Holy Spirit ties you and me to Jesus, and nothing can break that bond. You are not alone. No one is alone. Thanks be to God! Amen.