Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | May 29, 2022
John 14: 1-7
In Glasgow, Scotland there’s a museum called “The People’s Palace.” The People’s Palace is a museum of the life, history and culture of the city. There’s one part where visitors can go into a World War 2 bomb shelter. Inside the bomb shelter you hear the sound of an air raid siren, anti-aircraft fire and the distant rumble of bombs exploding. Sitting there evokes a sense of dread, the feeling of what life was like for people in those days.
In one sense you think, “that was then, this is now.” Now though, this is now. Our time is troubling, challenging, fearful even. We wonder when the next siren going to sound. When is the next bombshell going to drop?
When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus had died, the story is told that he cried. It was probably not the first time or the only time in his life that he cried. Just one of the times we are told about. Yet, he was also the one who said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
Jesus telling us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” has always been challenging to me. Anxiety can be a good thing. It keeps us safe. In terms of human evolution, the people without anxiety were the ones who tried to pick up the snake or pet the tiger. Their genes didn’t survive.
But Jesus telling us not to be troubled can also sound like someone telling you God won’t give you more weight that you can bear. We know as a fact that some weights in life are unbearable. Or he might sound like Bobby McFerrin telling us, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Troubling as it may be, Jesus shows the reality of what it means be human and what it means to trust in God. Trust in God doesn’t save us from the sorrows of life, but trust in God gives us the courage to move through the sorrows of life. Sometimes it’s the long way through.
One thing I’ve learned along the way is that if we don’t deal with the difficulties of life, then the difficulties of life will deal with us.
When I was growing up, my siblings and I were discouraged from showing any negative emotion. An example is that we got yelled at for crying. So, I learned to bottle up my feelings. But the feelings didn’t go away. By internalizing all the negatives, I developed a bothersome case of eczema. I developed a nervous grin. And for some of these things I got yelled at.
Rather than taking all these burdens on and imploding, I was able to cultivate a life outside of home. I had a lot of friends. I had a church where people made me feel a part of the church family. I was able to develop a sense of humor, which over time helped me to cope with hard realities. We know the reality of, “crying with laughter,” or “tears of joy.”
When Jesus wept, no one told him stop crying. They said, “See how much he cares.”
Toward the end of his journey Jesus gathered with his followers and he told them that it was time for him to move on. He would have to leave them because he was going to be executed by the Romans. This was not something they wanted to hear, obviously.
But he said to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. I am going there to prepare a place for you and then I will come back and take you there to be with me.”
These words are a comfort in times of stress and distress. We often hear them spoken in times of death and dying. At the funeral service we hear them as a kind assurance that even though death has separated us from those we love, that there is a room, a dwelling place in God’s realm where our loved ones are together with God.
On a deeper level Jesus was talking about life in the here and now. The word for “dwelling place,” or “room” or even “mansion” as it has been translated, actually means “campground” or “resting place.”
More than the final destination of eternity, Jesus was talking about the journey of our lives today and tomorrow, if tomorrow is what comes. We can’t see what’s there and though we plan and hope and trust that tomorrow will come, we only have the now.
And the here and now can be painful. As his friends were facing the uncertain future of his death, we face the uncertain future of death in all its forms – death as the assault upon and denial of life. When we are the ones traveling through the valley of the shadow of death what we don’t need are people telling us, “Oh, don’t worry! Look on the bright side! Count your blessings! God will never give you a burden heavier than what you can bear!”
Sometimes we don’t ever get over it; but we get through it. When life becomes unbearable, what we need is a friend who says, “I am with you, no matter what.”
Over the years I’ve carried a mental file under the heading, “I am with you no matter what.” The subheading of this mental file is, “When the worst that can happen, happens.” These are the experiences of people who find themselves with no way out of loss, pain and sorrow. People in the healing and helping professions know what it is to be alongside people through these difficult journeys.
It was a warm Saturday in mid-summer. We lived in Clarion, Iowa. My children were young, and they were outside playing the day away. I had to leave the house for a while; one of the doctors at the local hospital called and asked if I would come over and help with him with something.
My children remember to this day the conversation we had when I came back home. I gathered them together. I was the most serious that they had ever in their lives seen me. I took a green plastic disposable lighter out of my pocket and held it up. I said, “This is not a toy. Don’t ever, ever play with one of these. If you see one laying around or find one, bring it to me. Do not under any circumstances play with one of these. This is not a toy. I’m not mad at you. Do you understand me?”
They got the message. When I finished talking to them, I gave them a hug and went in the house and sat there, listening to the sounds of my children playing in the yard. It was the most beautiful sound in the world to me. I had spent the previous hour sitting in a room with two parents as they held the bodies of their children who had died in a house fire; a fire that started when one of them had been playing with a disposable lighter.
Jesus said, “I am preparing the way for you.” We usually don’t see how the way is being prepared when we’re in the midst of the worst that can happen. Trust in God gives us hindsight. When we look back on the path we have travelled, it’s then we see the ways that God was with us.
Some months after that day of sorrow, I was at the grocery store and I met the grandmother of those children who had died. We spoke briefly, she was grieving. She said, “Thank you so much for being there when they needed you.”
As I recalled the day, I said not a word in that room with those parents. There was nothing that could be said. I just sat there with them in their inconsolable grief. But when looking back on the day, being there had been something.
That experience, and all the others in that file that has been added to over the years, reminds me that when life cannot be fixed, all we can do is let God be God. Because God is at work in ways that we don’t see. But when we get to where we’re going, we find that the place has been prepared for us. Does that make sense? No; it’s not supposed to make sense. But we can look at our lives and see those times when we lived the reality of it.
He is preparing our future for when we get there. It might not be a future that we want to live into. It might be a future of grief, pain or suffering. But he is saying to his friends that he is going there, preparing a place, then coming back to go there with us. Every step of the way.
“So that where I am, you may be also.” Amen.