The Promise of Absence

May 31, 2022

Rev. Paul L. Escamilla – May 29, 2022

Rev. John Fawcett was serving as a pastor in little hamlet of Wainsgate, England when he was called to serve another church, this one in London, as happens in the preaching life. He’d been a good pastor in Wainsgate, and the congregation was deeply saddened by the news of his departure. He and his wife Mary were very mixed about it themselves. The day of their leave-taking finally came. The couple had put their affairs in order, sold many of their household possessions, packed what remained onto a carriage, and were now ready to bid the church family a final farewell.

The story is told that as the congregation gathered with then one last time, with more hugs and tears and expressions of affection and farewell, everyone, including John and Mary, was enveloped in a whole new wave of sadness, such that the couple pulled away, discussed the matter, and resolved to decline the call to serve the London church and instead remain in Wainsgate. Their change of plans was received with great cheering and celebration. The couple went on to serve in the Wainsgate church for another fifty years! Rev. Fawcett was a hymn writer, and there’s no question but that this profound personal experience became the inspiration for one of his hymns that many of us know and love: “Blest Be the Tie that Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love.”

None of us like goodbyes. The thought of someone who brings light and life, warmth and goodness into our lives walking out of our lives is not a pleasant one. If we could avoid the experience of parting altogether—or at least put it off for fifty years like John and Mary Fawcett and the Wainsgate congregation—I suppose we would.

I’ve had a recurring sentiment lately: I’ll attend a meeting, or share a conversation, or pay a pastoral visit, or work with some of you on a project, and in the course of conversation I’ll say in jest, “I’ve changed my mind—I’m staying.” We’ve shared such good things across these four years: love and affection, laughter, tears . . . We’ve shared tremendous challenges, crafted new expressions of worship and outreach and ministry; welcomed the stranger, deepened our friendships and our faith.

You and I together have gently lifted precious little ones from the waters of baptism; and gently lowered our beloved saints to their final rest; the trust you’ve extended to me and to each other, the mutual appreciation and regard—all of that has come into ever greater focus with Liz and my decision this past winter to retire at the end of June. Laurel Heights, you have been good to me, and to Liz, and we are deeply grateful, and very sad to be leaving this our wonderful church family. Thank you.

In our reading today Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples, and yet the mood doesn’t seem to match the moment. Luke tells us that once Jesus had left them the disciples returned to Jerusalem with joy; but not merely with joy—with great joy. Of all the things we feel when we’re saying a final goodbye, great joy is not generally one of them. Goodbye is normally more closely related to a lump in the throat than to laughter in the heart or lightness in the step.

They returned to Jerusalem with great joy. How was that possible? This is my best theory: In the passage Mark just read with us Luke tells us that just before leaving them Jesus opened their minds to understanding the Scriptures. In a narrow sense he was teaching them about the meaning of his own dying and rising. But in a broader sense, perhaps he was reminding them of the whole witness of Scripture: one instance after another of tragedy being followed by redemption, absence holding promise for fullness, vacancy resulting in fulfillment.

Moses’ mother gently pushing her little newborn son into the river’s current in a basket lined with tar, hoping thereby to save his life. Downriver he’s out of the water by a princess in Pharoah’s court and grows up to lead a nation of captives to their freedom. From absence, fullness.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ first symbolic act about what God is doing in the world occurs at a wedding party where every flask of wine has been emptied. Jesus intervenes, and in an a hundred and fifty gallons of the finest wine for the guests to enjoy. From emptiness, fullness; from absence, abundance. John wastes no time here in introducing a new Greek word: epiphany. Which in our language means insight or awareness, something that dawns on us for the first time; in this case, that what God is doing in the world is constantly turning absence into presence.

Speaking of dawn, Luke gives us an Easter account that begins just before dawn with confused, frightened, and dispirited disciples stumbling toward Jesus’ tomb. Their dismay surely deepens when they hear this message upon their arrival: “He is not here.”

Bad enough that Jesus has died. Now he’s also missing. Never has a second sentence been so welcome: “He is not here. He is risen.” In a heartbeat the story has shifted from absence to amazement.

Whenever we look out on the community or the wider world and witness a senseless tragedy that reflects our own worst selves, we feel an ache deeper than we can express or assuage. Whenever we lose someone in death. Whenever we must say goodbye to those, we love who have been called to journey along other paths; there’s a sadness, a vacancy, an emptiness. Today is layered in that sense for us at Laurel Heights.

The gospel assures us that the vacant places in us and in our world will by the goodness of God be filled with God’s healing, life-giving presence, God’s shalom. As Laura Healy reminded us the other evening while we were gathered in the chapel to light candles against the darkness of an acute national tragedy, this is the epiphany: that through the grace of God, the worst thing is never the last thing; every absence holds within it a silent but immutable promise for goodness to prevail.

It was the summer I arrived at Saint John’s, the church I formerly served in Austin, that I met the Porter family: Rayda, her husband Wade, and their daughter Stacey. Rayda and Stacey are now in the Laurel Heights fold, having moved in recent years from Austin to San Antonio, and Stacey and her husband Jonathan will bring their newborn to the font of baptism later this morning. That summer Wade was contending with late-stage pancreatic cancer. As we became acquainted in the several months leading up to his death, I found him to be remarkably thoughtful and articulate, realistic but also hopeful in finding meaning in his experience of dying. In the last lines of his final blog entry, he wrote these words: “There is an inevitability to parting in this life . . . But what I have found . . . is that every parting invites a resurrection.” This past February, eleven years to the month after Wade’s death, his grandson, his namesake, was born, and today we will administer the sign of new birth and new creation.  

Now we know something of the reason the disciples responded to Jesus’ departure as they did—with great joy. They knew that of which Wade was also assured, a promise that is ours as well: In the mystery of God’s grace absence always holds within it a promise of a new and deepened sense of presence and new beginnings. Jesus’ promise is that though he’s leaving his disciples, he will be present with them in the Holy Spirit, bearing gifts of purpose, power, and deep, abiding peace.

The other day I found myself saying yet again, “I’ve changed my mind—I’m staying. Maybe another fifty years. If John Fawcett can do it, so can I.” This time the occasion was a visit to Laurel Heights by your new senior pastor, Reverend Lisa Straus. She spent a morning here meeting with various staff members, with Trudy, with some others. The sense of energy and joy and promise, of giving and receiving, of encouragement and hopefulness was palpable that day as Lisa extended her generous pastoral presence and received your wonderful Laurel Heights hospitality. When Lisa left that day, I found myself thinking, when can she come back? Soon enough—she has a church in Buda to say farewell to, a daughter to marry, a house to move out of, another to move into. Lisa will be with us briefly on June 19th, my final Sunday here, and then begin her work at Laurel Heights the following week, just in time for VBS. A phrase from Browning that Jerry and Vicki Crockett gave me weeks ago before they were married came to mind: The best is yet to be; the last for which the first was made. This is going to be so good—I don’t want to miss it.

I was in meetings with the bishop the following day. I said, Bishop, I know it’s too late for me to change my mind about retiring—and I wouldn’t have Lisa miss out on Laurel Heights, or Laurel Heights not to come to know Lisa as their pastor—but it sure is going to be good over there. Maybe I could stay on as a doorkeeper or something. He paused and said, “That could be arranged.”

Jesus opened their minds. It was in fact the very last thing he did before his departure. Give his disciples an open mind. One of the most important qualities of a human being. Just before that, at Emmaus, it was a warm heart he gave them, equally important for being truly human. These are the gifts to us from the risen Christ in the Easter season: warm hearts, open minds. Readiness to imagine boldly and to love generously in a new season of life together, claiming the grand promise of all that is yet to be. Maybe even doing so with some sadness, to be sure, but also with great joy. After all, every parting invites a resurrection.