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Into the World

St. John’s Lutheran Church
12 May 2024 + Seventh Sunday of Easter
John 17:6-19
Rev. Josh Evans


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After attending the final funeral together, Carolyn Goodman, Fannie Lee Chaney, and Anne Schwerner stand alone in a New York City apartment. Inspired by a photograph captured of the three women in August of 1964, playwright Ajene D. Washington imagines the conversation that came after, in Carolyn’s apartment, as they each struggle to make sense of the unimaginable and forge a path forward.

Concluding its short world premiere run at the Capital Rep this weekend, the fictional play Three Mothers is set against the real-life historical backdrop of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, a volunteer-run campaign that sought to get as many black residents of Mississippi as possible registered to vote in the face of increasing barriers.

Not surprisingly, the Freedom Summer Project was met with almost immediate violence and retaliation against its volunteers – including the arrest, release, and subsequent “disappearance” of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white Jewish activists from New York City, and James Chaney, a local black activist from Meridian, Mississippi. When their bodies were recovered forty-four days later, their murders – a coordinated conspiracy by local KKK members – gripped national attention.

Meanwhile, in Carolyn Goodman’s apartment, after Andrew’s funeral, three mothers face the unimaginable as they grieve the deaths of their children – struggling to make meaning out of their sons’ work, and wondering about their own place in all of it.

***

I wonder what it must have felt like.

There was no denying it anymore: Jesus was going away. He had told them so himself – at length, in fact, over the last three chapters of John’s gospel. Already they knew that one of their own would betray him and that another would deny ever knowing him.

Everything they had come to know and experience and rely on for the last few years together was about to change. Everything they had placed their hope in was about to come crashing down around them. It must have felt like it was all over – all hope lost.

I wonder what it must have felt like – as Jesus’s parting words shift from discourse to prayer – now overhearing this prayer, for them.

In the midst of fear and uncertainty, on the cusp of loss and grief, Jesus prays for them, aloud – they are meant to hear these words!

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine … Protect them … Sanctify them.”

In the midst of complicated emotions, Jesus doesn’t offer another miracle or parable or teaching, but a prayer.

Jesus prays for his friends. He offers them a reminder of their belonging to God and commends them to the loving protection and care of God, even as he himself is about to leave them.

I wonder what it must have felt like – to hear these words as Jesus was leaving them in a hostile world that hates them.

Wasn’t there another way? Could they not have gone with Jesus?

***

It’s a perplexing thing: to be in a place and not belong. To be actively reviled for the very thing you stand for. And yet also to know: You have to be there. There is work still to be done.

A determination for expanding civil rights led Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from their New York home to join with James Chaney in the fight for voting rights in Mississippi. And even after their murders – or perhaps fueled by them – that same spirit of determination could not be quelled, but ultimately gave way to what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“And what of the boys’ mothers?” the play’s program asks. “They took up the mantle of their sons’ work and became Mothers of the Civil Rights Movement.”

For Fannie’s part, she initially remained in her native Meridian, speaking out about voting rights and racial justice, even suing five restaurants for discrimination – despite the great risk to herself and her family.

It must have felt like it was all over – and yet, in their shared grief and struggle to make sense of the unimaginable, these three mothers forged an unbreakable bond, taking up their own place in the work to which their children had so dedicated themselves.

***

“As you have sent me into the world,” Jesus prays, “so I have sent them into the world.”

Jesus’ prayer is as much a commission as it is a blessing.

It must have felt like it was all over – and yet, in his parting words to his disciples, Jesus reminds them: It very much is not over.

“I am the vine,” as Jesus said only moments before, “you are the branches.” As if to say: It starts with me. It continues with you. I need you here. I need you in the world to bear witness when I can’t be here anymore.

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” the 16th-century mystic and saint Teresa of Ávila writes.

Jesus sends us.

Never alone, but guided by another Advocate, Jesus sends us into the world.

Jesus sends us into the world in all its brokenness, in all its pain, in all its grief.

In this world, there is still work to be done.

There is still good news to share: good news that God is with us.

There is still love to be revealed: God’s love for the world.

Jesus sends us.

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