SERMON: May 14, 2017
John 14:1-14 (RSV)
14 “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way where I am going.” [b] 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.
12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; 14 if you ask[c] anything in my name, I will do it.
One year, for each of our birthdays, my mother sent my sisters and me the same birthday card. It was a cartoon of a women wrapped in a bath towel, standing before a foggy mirror. She is reaching for her glasses next to the sink. As she squints into the mirror she says, “Mom?”
I think most of us reach the point in life when we sense we are becoming our parents. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I leave up to you. I quit being flabbergasted a long time ago when my mother’s words started coming out of my mouth – mostly when I was imparting some motherly “wisdom” to the kids. Sometimes I even channel my dad’s horrible puns. When that happens my son makes a great show of looking around the room and asking, “Grandpa?”
The older I get the more often I see my mother standing in the mirror. Mom had so many delightful attributes. Of course, God’s sense of humor dictates I should not necessarily inherit all the good traits of my parents, but instead gave me the traits that drove me the most bats as I grew up. So why am I so surprised to find Mom and I share something else?
My parents didn’t spend a lot of time talking about spiritual things. They both were deeply faithful, but they led more from example than from conversation. Certainly, the topic of death and dying was held at arm’s length; almost as if talking about it would cause it to happen.
Mom died in 2011 of cystic fibrosis: her lungs just slowly refused to work. She was 95, God bless her, and still sharp as a tack.
One night, as her illness progressed, I was visiting Mom and Dad in Arizona. My mother and I stood on their driveway, looking up at a remarkable display of stars, such as one finds only in the dry air of the dessert southwest. Somehow, heaven looks bigger out there.
Out of the blue, Mom said, “I don’t want to die.” Then she added, “I don’t know where I’m going.”
Surprised, I said, “Mom, I think we both know where you’re going.” “I know,” she replied, “but I like it here.”
I know, Mom, I like it here too. And now that you’re gone, and I’ve grown older, I finally get a glimpse of what you meant by that.
Lately, I find myself thinking about all the things I want to do before I die. And I don’t mean some comedic bucket list. I want to know if I will have enough time to do the things I still long to do – things I think I must do. Can I do all of them? Some of them? Will my time on earth leave any sort of mark behind, anything at all that says, “I was here”?
I don’t remember much about the rest of the conversation with my mother, but pray I didn’t offer some stupid, cliché response. I hope I didn’t say something awful like, well after 95 years you’ve had a good run, Mom. Surely I wasn’t that clueless – or tactless.
Of course, I know deep in my heart that my mother is in the arms of the God who loves her. But standing on that driveway, under the stars, I never said what might have been said:
“Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.”
In our scripture lesson for day, we hear Jesus’s words of comfort for his disciples:
“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
This scripture from John’s gospel is often called Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent departure. Once more, he reminds them they are at the brink of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. He has just lovingly washed their feet, and now they gather around the table. In a moment, Judas will steal away and begin a dark journey of his own.
Yet, despite of all of the times Jesus has spoken to them about it, the disciples never seem to understand what he is saying. Their hearts are deeply troubled, yet they don’t really hear his words of comfort. They only ask questions.
We do this as well. When we struggle to make sense of things, or feel overwhelmed by circumstances, we often turn to questions: Why is this happening? Who is doing this? How did this happen?… And: in the end, will my life have made a difference?
The disciples’ questions have a similar poignancy. When Jesus says, “you know the way to the place where I am going,” Thomas replies quite bluntly, “Lord, we do not even know where you are going, how can we know the way?” And when Jesus suggests that he is the way and that anyone who knows him will know the Father, Philip also reaches his limit and makes a request that is even more audacious – indeed, asking what no pious Jew would dare ask: “Show us what God looks like.”
Jesus’ answer – “Have you been with me so long and still do not know me?” – is less about his own frustration than it is an attempt to re-focus the question. Perhaps he understands that the real question is why – why are you leaving us, and why can’t we go along? In response, Jesus offers not so much an answer as he offers himself.
We want to ask questions like that, too. Like the disciples, our hearts are troubled because the gift of mortal life doesn’t last. What will free our hearts from trouble? The world has a multitude of answers for us, but Jesus has only one: believe in God, believe also in me.
No matter what questions the disciples ask, Jesus begins from a place of comfort and assurance. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I go to prepare a place for you, and then I will come and take you there, and you will be with me forever.
But the questions are important. They give voice to our deep need to understand, to comprehend, to make sense. But they are also often quite difficult, if not impossible, to answer. What should I have said to my mother? What should Jesus say to his friends?
Part of the answer may be found in what Jesus did before he departed. Jesus gives the gift of his last bit of time to comfort and prepare his disciples for life without him. Remember what John’s gospel records: Jesus lovingly washes their feet, shares a meal with them, and commands them to love one another. He gives the gift of himself.
So maybe the question I should be asking isn’t, do I have enough time to accomplish all I desire? The better question is, before I go, have I washed the feet of the poor? Shared food with those who need to be nourished in both body and soul? Truly loved others as I love myself? Have I given enough of myself – not as Jesus gives, but as he commands of us?
If there is any way I can answer yes to those questions – and believe me, I have a long way to go, there will be no need to wonder if I will leave any mark on the world. Offering that kind of comfort and hope is more legacy than anyone can ever create for themselves.
Instead of answering the “why” question, Jesus answers the question of “who.” He is the one who loves them and, in turn, who makes visibly clear God’s love. He is the one they have known and can trust and who will do what they ask and provide them what they need.
Sometimes we want answers, even when what we really need is relationship. In our closet relationships, in the kindness we leave behind, there is the best legacy of all. So many of the things we want to do are already present in the gifts we give others. Maybe my son isn’t so off the mark when he pretends to look for my father, because a large part of who he was is still here.
Messy, unanswered questions are part and parcel of our life of faith. Yet, whatever our questions, whatever our doubts, whatever the unknowns, Jesus still makes himself available to us. Indeed, Jesus still offers himself to us, inviting us into a relationship that may not answer all of our questions but ultimately transcends them. Amen.