Lilacs at Emmanuel

Easter 7 – Guest Preacher Olga Hartwell – May 24, 2020

Unruly Potatoes

Olga HartwellPlease pray with me.

Almighty God, You came among us, and You prayed for us.   We are listening, Lord; draw us close, that we may hear Your Word.  Amen.

These are strange times.

I live in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, where more than 20,000 people have died.   And yet, perched in my apartment on Riverside Drive, on the western edge of Manhattan – suspended in the quiet, the light, the fresh spring air – here is what I see.

New York City Riverside Drive

It doesn’t look like there’s a plague on, does it.

But life as we know it is – what?  On hold?  Or is it – over?

I don’t know.  No one knows.  In the meantime, we wait and watch, watch and wait.

And, as I watch and wait in this strange time, time itself becomes strange.  Each day, on its own, has its structure, its rhythm.  But the days all together – that’s a different story.


Every Tuesday, I’m stunned.

“But I just changed these sheets!”

“Well,” my husband, Chris, replies reasonably, “then don’t change them again.”

“But it’s Tuesday!”

“Well, maybe you don’t need to change them every week.”

“That’s not the point!  The point is it’s Tuesday.  Again.  How did that happen?”

“Well,” he starts to explain – but then he catches himself.  After nearly 30 years of marriage, he knows better.


And then there were the potatoes.  Talking to my daughter, Olivia – 22 years old, almost two thousand miles away – I switch to Facetime to show her my well-stocked pantry.  Now that we talk almost every day, it’s remarkable what qualifies as news.

“Here, Bébé, I’ll show you.  I read on the internet that you don’t have to keep potatoes in the refrigerator – you can put them in a paper bag, in the pantry.  Here – see?  In this drawer.  I got them – oh, I’m not sure when I got them – but it said you can keep them like this for weeks.”

And I unfurled the bag, and – oh dear.

Olivia and I are horrified.

Sprouted PotatoesOh NO, Mummah!  They’ve – they’ve sprouted!

“Oh NO!  Just look at them!”

Chris ambles in to see what the fuss is about.

“What’s the big deal?  They’ve sprouted.  That’s what they do.”

“But I just put them in there!  How did that happen?”

He shakes his head and ambles out again.  And Olivia and I gaze at the potatoes.  Potatoes, of all things – stolid, starchy, safe potatoes – have somehow had time to go all unruly in the dark.

How long has it been?

How long will it be?

In the Meantime

What, exactly, should I do in the meantime?

In the meantime – until what?  How will I know when the “meantime” is over?

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ disciples – living through an even stranger suspended time – had similar questions.   Jesus has been appearing to them, talking to them about the kingdom of God, and telling them to stay put, not to leave Jerusalem.  He has been telling them to wait and watch, in other words; to watch and wait.

But – for what, exactly, they wonder?  What’s going to happen?  When?

“‘Lord,'” they ask Jesus, “‘is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’”  Wrong question, Jesus tells them.  “‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.'”

So – what will happen?  When?  He doesn’t tell them.  But he does tell them what to do in the meantime – while they wait and watch, watch and wait.

“‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'”  These are the last words He says to them.  Then he is lifted up, and they find themselves staring – mouths wide open, I imagine – up into the clouds.

Like the disciples, we don’t know what we are waiting for, exactly.  What’s going to happen, when – we don’t know.  But, in the meantime, we can do what Jesus tells His disciples to do:

We can be Jesus’ witnesses.

And we can start by witnessing – really witnessing, paying attention as if we will be called to testify – to what Jesus does in our Gospel reading for today.  Through the time-bending, time-traveling wonder of the Word, we can watch Jesus two thousand years ago, right now, in this present moment.  Look – watch – wait.  What is He doing?

Jesus Prays for His Disciples

Jesus is praying for His disciples.  Not just the twelve, or the eleven, or whatever circle you draw around them – but for all those, He says later, who believe in Jesus through their word – His disciples through the centuries, through the ages, wherever and whenever we may be.  He is praying for us.  And here is what He prays.

“‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.'”

Protect them, He prays.  Protect them.

Protect them from what?  Persecution?  Illness?  Suffering?  Death?  Listen carefully – as if you were going to testify – as if you were going to be His witness.  That’s not what He prays.

Protect them, He prays.  Protect them, “‘so that they may be one, as we are one.'”

Later, Jesus is more specific about the protection He seeks on our behalf.  And, again, it’s not protection from persecution, illness, suffering, or death.  “‘I am not asking you to take them out of the world,'” Jesus says.  “‘But I ask you to protect them from the evil one'” – or, as my beloved King James Bible says, simply “‘the evil'” – “‘that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.'”

And then He comes back to the goal: “‘so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.'”

Why?  The stakes couldn’t be higher.  Here’s how the verse continues:  “That they may become completely one,'” Jesus says, “‘So that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.'”

When we become one – as the Father and the Son are one – we know that the Father sent the Son and that the Father loves us even as He loves the Son.  And this knowing is nothing less than eternal life.  “‘And this is eternal life,'” Jesus says, “‘that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.'”

Doing As Jesus Instructs

So, now that we’ve done what Jesus instructs His disciples to do in the meantime, in the in between time, in the time of watching and waiting – now that we’ve been Jesus’ witnesses, now that we’ve witnessed Him praying on our behalf – what do you think?  How do you feel?

Here’s what I think.  I think Jesus is being pretty clear:  To know the Father and the Son – to have eternal life – we must be “one” – as the Father and the Son are one.  Evil is anything that divides us.  And I think what he’s saying makes sense.  How can we know God if we don’t know one another as God’s beloved children?

Here’s what I feel, as I sit here in my clean, comfortable, lovely little nest looking out over the Hudson River.  Here’s what I feel, as I respond to the crisis of sprouting potatoes.  I feel that I am very, very far from being one with my neighbors.   Of course, terrible things can happen to me, or to the people dearest to me.  But – one with my neighbors?  I am not one with my neighbors – at least, not if being one with my neighbors means truly sharing their lives.

And here’s the worst of it, now that we’re talking about how we feel.  I don’t want to be “one” with my neighbors at the moment.  I don’t want to experience daily life in Elmhurst, Queens, or Co-op City, in the Bronx, where people get sick at a rate 3 times higher than in my neighborhood – and where the results of getting sick are far, far more deadly.  I don’t want to ride the subway in from Brooklyn every morning, and ride it back every evening, with the kind, gentle doorman in our lobby, who greets me with such good cheer every time I go out for a walk in the park.

But here’s what else I feel.  I feel grateful that Jesus prayed for me – and for all of us – a prayer that I can pray only half-heartedly myself:  That we – that all of us – may be one, as the Father and Son are one.  And I trust that, somehow, as I kneel next to Jesus, He will take my faltering prayer and redeem it, so that I pray with my whole heart, my whole mind, my whole strength; so that the world will know God; so that I – and all of us, every one of us – have eternal life.

So I will continue to watch, and wait, and witness.  I will continue to make my tiny contributions of time and treasure, attention and care, even as I see, all too clearly – in myself first of all – the self-concern, the fear, the doubt – the evil – that divides us.  I will pray, with Jesus, that we – that all of us – may be one, even as the Father and Son are one.  My heart isn’t wholly in it – at least not yet – but I can’t let that stand in my way.

And perhaps, in the meantime – in this strange, suspended meantime when time itself is strange – my heart – my stolid, starchy, safety-loving heart – will burst forth with new life, like an unruly potato, sprouting in the dark.


Sprouted Potatoes