John 14:8-17, 25-27
You may or may not know, my grandpa Emmett died this week. He was one day past 99 and a half years, so we might as well round it to an even 100: born Nov. 12, 1916; died Friday, May 13, at about 7pm.
With him passes nearly a century of wisdom, humor, and selflessness. He leaves behind his dear wife Peggy (whom he married just seven years ago); his five children (all adopted, by the way); and a vast assortment of grandchildren, nephews, nieces, great-nephews and great-nieces, great-grandchildren, and even some great-great-grandchildren. Quite a legacy!
Emmett’s boyhood brought him from California to New Orleans, where he witnessed his mother—my great-grandmother—navigate her way through a failed marriage to his stepfather. By adolescence he found himself back in California with his sister and their single mother; struggling to make ends meet in a day when women just weren’t single.
His mother found work building airplanes for the military. Today we remember her and other women she worked with as Rosie Riveters.
Anyway, something in my grandpa clicked during these adolescent years. He graduated high school and drove on over to Burbank one day, diploma in hand, inquiring about work with an airplane company called Lockheed. That airplane company hired him.
Life was now good. Emmett could now help his mom make ends meet.
But soon—after a certain December day in 1941—he found himself confronted with the possibility of having to join the military.
Instead, however, the people at Lockheed pulled some strings. Emmett, they said, is involved with a special group of researchers in a place in our organization we call the Skunkworks.
That special group, we know now, was responsible for developing such secret aircraft as the SR71, a plane that for many decades held the record as the fastest of all aircraft. Lockheed needed Emmett. He never enlisted.
He then met, fell in love with, and married a woman. I never learned her name. Their relationship was fast and furious, like the aircraft he worked on. In their young, fast, and furious love they decided to adopt a war baby, a girl born March 3, 1945. They named her Cheryl.
But motherhood and other burdensome responsibilities were apparently too difficult for Emmett’s unnamed wife: he woke one morning to find a note on the pillow next to him; she’d left him and Baby Cheryl forever.
Emmett decided to pool his resources with his single mother. Together they bought a house and raised Baby Cheryl.
For the next nineteen years, Emmett worked faithfully and tirelessly to provide for this household of three spanning as many generations. He’d commute from Reseda to Burbank while Granny got Cheryl off to school each morning, picked her up each afternoon, shuttled her back and forth to her cousin Annette’s for play dates, and otherwise raised her.
Then at nineteen, Cheryl moved out and married a dapper, just-graduated-from-UCLA engineer named Dan.
And then—only then: only after he’d faithfully and tirelessly raised his adopted daughter Cheryl for nineteen years and she’d gone off and got married—did Emmett try again to succeed in the realm of romantic love.
Her name was Peggy. And she brought four children in tow.
Not so fast and furious this time, he fell deeply in love again; and so did Peggy. They were soon married. And again Emmett went through the legal process of adoption. And just like that he found himself with five children, ranging in age from 12 to 22. Imagine that!
And just like that (!) everything settled into place. What so recently had seemed chaos was now calm. And Emmett played no small part in bringing this calm about.
So, by the time Dan and Cheryl had been married for a few years and I was born, this big, happy, stable, functional family was what I knew.
Whatever had occurred in this family’s history didn’t matter to me. What I cared about was the here and now; and here and now before me (for the next 48 years) was one of the most wise, witty, and selfless persons I’ve ever known, Grandpa Emmett, a calming force, again and again, in our chaotic world.
And you know what else? He taught me how to wash my eyeball. Yeah! Check this out! <Demonstration.>
So: you know how it is. We, his family—his five adopted children and all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews and everyone else—we miss his legacy.
Especially now, when the grief is still fresh, we miss him—his teachings, his jokes, his example.
Do you think it was really all that different for Jesus’ disciples?
They’d just spent three years of their lives with him. They’d listened to his teachings. They’d laughed at his jokes. And they’d pondered his example.
Who was this man, that even the wind and the waves obeyed him? Who was he, that at something so simple as his word armed men fell away? Who was he, to say that no one can come to the Father except through him? Who was he to bring calm and order to a chaotic world?
He’d left behind a legacy.
But now that he was going away, now with the freshness of the resurrection still playing with the happy end of the disciples’ emotional spectrum, the thought of Jesus leaving them was almost too much to bear. Hadn’t they just endured the grief of his death? How would they be able to cope with his absence again? How would they be able to carry on his legacy?
It is into this emotional roller coaster that Jesus sends his Spirit.
The world is crazy. It’s chaotic. It opposes the truth that Jesus is and brings. But the Spirit continues Jesus Christ’s legacy, bringing calm to a chaotic world.
Let’s revisit now the idea that John’s Gospel breaks the fourth wall.
If you were here two weeks ago—today’s Gospel actually overlaps some with that one—I talked about how John the Evangelist often comes out of his story into the present lives of his audience to make a point. I likened John’s story to an imaginary rendition of The Wizard of Oz, where right at the tensest point in the movie, what if Dorothy suddenly turned to the camera with a snarky expression on her face and asked, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”
It doesn’t happen, of course; but that would be to break the fourth wall. And that is exactly what John does, several times in fact, in his Gospel.
He writes to an audience living two or three generations after Christ’s death and resurrection—two or three generations after the Day of Pentecost.
Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven. He is no longer with his disciples. And now they’ve been kicked out of the local synagogue. What are they to do?
Through the story he tells, then, John breaks the fourth wall and comes into the present-day story that his community is living out.
“Do not be afraid,” he tells his audience directly. “Jesus has sent the promised Advocate, his Holy Spirit. And this Holy Spirit will guide, comfort, and teach us. Do you see what Jesus promised to our forefathers, the first disciples? And look around us! That promise is still happening with us, nearly a hundred years later, despite the trials and chaos we now experience. Do not let your hearts be troubled. The Holy Spirit is with us.”
So, my grandpa’s story is something of a fourth wall for me. I hope it is for you too.
Grandpa Emmett wasn’t a theologian. He never taught Sunday school. He didn’t read theological books or become an EfM mentor.
But when trials and chaos came his way and to those around him, he trusted the same words St. John wrote to his community so long ago. The Holy Spirit was Emmett’s Advocate throughout his life. The Holy Spirit brought Christ’s peace to Emmett in times of uncertainty. The Holy Spirit guided Emmett through the way of truth.
And, Emmett’s century of life tells us, the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives, advocating, guiding, and comforting us through the chaos of our world.
The promises Jesus gave to his disciples and the promises St. John gave to his community—these promises still hold true today.
Thank you for leaving me with this legacy, Grandpa. May you rest in peace.
Follow up note: I’ve since learned that my grandpa did in fact enlist in the Army for a short time in 1945. After boot camp and being sworn in, he was released because of the recent adoption of Baby Cheryl. He returned to Lockheed something like two months after leaving for the Army. The war ended very shortly after that. He was thus a veteran, a thing I did not know until his funeral, when a decked veteran showed up and performed Taps while the coffin was lowered into the grave.