May 17, 2020

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading Philip spoke to a Samaritan town to preach. The Samaritans believed him either because they witnessed Jesus’ miracles or heard about them. Philip then returned to Jerusalem and told the rest of the apostles. The apostles then sent Peter and John to the town. Since the Samaritans were baptized by Philip, Peter and John laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel Jesus preached to his disciples. He told them that if they love him they will fulfill his commandments. If they ask for the Spirit of truth it will be given to them. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come back to you.”

There’s a certain intrigue in today’s Gospel where Jesus promises to “not leave [us] as orphans” but will instead bring us to the Father. As I write this Americans are celebrating Mother’s Day and if you’ve been anywhere on social media you know that we’re celebrating and remembering mothers, those who are still with us and those who aren’t.

We’re all aware of the existence of orphanages, and how horrible they are. Don’t get me wrong: those who work with orphans have my undying respect. But orphans remind us of the lowest of the low. Orphans are people who have nobody. They can’t care for themselves and they have no parents who can care for them. They depend on the kindness of strangers who, despite their best efforts, cannot be full parents to those they care for.

For me this is personal. My maternal grandfather (and namesake) was born in 1902 in Boston to Irish immigrants. His early life is murky but at some point he and his siblings lost their parents and were placed in an orphanage. My grandfather was adopted as a baby by a childless couple, but when he was 16 his stepfather died in the 1918 flu pandemic. By the time he was a teenager he had lost his 3rd parent.

Today most of us will never encounter an orphanage. In much of the world we’ve closed down orphanages and children in need are placed in foster homes.

But as a hospice chaplain I meet many orphans. When we’re born we see our parents as eternal, as those who will care for us and protect us for all of our lives. And even when we grow up, marry, and have children, we expect our parents will live forever and be the place we can go when we need answers. I can’t tell how many times I’ve cared for a family member who felt like an orphan after the death of his or her last parent. And these are men and women in their 50s and 60s.

So much of who we are as humans involves who we are with each other. We define ourselves in terms of relationships. I am Nancy’s husband, Don and Claire’s son, Lisa’s brother, Nathan and Chris and Andrea and Katie and Eric and Jessica’s uncle, and, well you get the point. But when orphans don’t have parents they also don’t have relationships with their siblings. They may live with other orphans but they are horribly alone.

In his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about the work of Robert Yerkes. Dr. Yerkes wrote about primates and recognized chimpanzees were social creatures. They can survive in isolation but they can never be fully chimpanzees. Dr. Yerkes famously wrote that “one chimpanzee is no chimpanzee.” Rabbi Kushner extended this to claim that “one person is no person.” In other words we cannot be fully human without each other.

Almost nothing tortures us more than isolation and being cut off from each other. Those in prison fear solitary confinement. Children know that a “time out” cuts them off from others, even if only for a few minutes. Simply put, we depend on each other to feel valuable and complete.

The happy ending to today’s readings lies in God’s promise to bring us together. If we follow God’s commands we will be together.

Now it’s easy to read this and believe that if we do what God wants us to do God will give us each other. In other words, if we are obedient, friends/spouses/whatever will come our way. But I suggest it’s deeper than that. God commands us to do many things, but his greatest commandment is this: Love God and Love One Another. We make friends and build relationships simply by doing this. If we reach out to each other in love we ensure that we will not be orphans.

Sounds easy, right? Well it’s not. In our first reading we how Phillip reached out to a Samaritan town. At the time of Jesus, Samaritans were hated among the Jews because of their beliefs and were not supposed to be included.

Today we live with the reality of COVID-19 pandemic. Everyday we see headlines where we celebrate heroes, be they first responders or health care workers or mail carriers, or whatever. But we also see those who have been isolated.

As you know I work in health care and I see difficult decisions being made every day. I had a conversation with the daughter of one of my patients who told me about her friend. In early March he made a difficult decision: he had been caring for his mother who suffered from dementia. He recognized that he could no longer properly care for her and placed her in a facility where she could receive the care she needed. A week later her care facility responded to COVID-19 by barring family members from visits. And while he understands the need to keep people safe he never dreamed that placing his mother may well mean he will never see her again.

He already feels like an orphan and he has to trust that his mother is well cared for. Sometimes isolation is necessary but not always. An elderly couple lives next door to me. Each morning I bring in their newspaper and the neighbor across the street does their grocery shopping. Last month one of them turned 98 (!) and we gathered at a safe distance and sang Happy Birthday to him. He was visibly moved.

If Easter season calls us to anything, it calls us to live as if our Resurrection is secure which gives us the freedom to be kind and generous.

Eventually this pandemic will end and we will be telling the stories of this year for decades to come. Let’s make some good memories.