Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

I am, once again, with the good people of Trinity Church, Shrewsbury during in a time of transition there.The readings for this fifth Sunday of the fifty-day Easter Season can be found here.

It has been my privilege to be with all of you for three Sundays of this Easter season.  As some of you will recall, we began with Thomas on the second Sunday of Easter and today we see Thomas again. Maybe this is a sign that we should pay attention to him? 

As you may be aware, these fourteen verses from the fourteenth chapter of John's Gospel are often read at funerals, and I think chosen by families because these words bring great comfort to people who have put their trust in Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life. In the context of John’s Gospel, this is the beginning of what the scholars call the “farewell discourse.” It is the last night of Jesus’ earthly life—Holy Thursday—and that is why the disciples’ “hearts are troubled.” Anyone who has ever kept vigil with a dying loved one knows something of the emotional energy of that Upper Room, of wanting to say goodbyes and of trying to take care of unfinished business.

So Jesus is giving instructions to the disciples on how to carry on with the work he has begun after he is gone. He is summing up what his life has been about and pointing the disciples to a way forward. He is explaining what it means to be the Church. I always think of the ‘farewell discourse’ as similar to the Book of Deuteronomy, where (as you may remember) Moses is giving his own farewell discourse. God’s people are preparing to enter into the Promised Land after forty years in the wilderness but Moses won’t be going with them. So he gives this long sermon – what we call the Book of Deuteronomy- which reiterates the lessons of the wilderness as he hopes they will remember them, because Moses knows that in the Promised Land they will tend to become forgetful. They will get there and say things like, “this is mine, I earned this.” So Moses keeps saying: remember the lessons of the wilderness – the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And you will do better together than divided, so you must learn to share. You must learn to live one day at a time.

I love the Book of Deuteronomy but that’s not the text for the day so that sermon will have to wait for a future visit. The point, though, is that for those Jewish followers of Jesus, listening to him give his farewell discourse, there are clearly echoes of Moses. At the heart of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-16 is a lived-out parable –do you remember? It’s the main action for us on Maundy Thursday: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and calls them his friends and gives them a new commandment, “to love one another as I have loved you.”

Whatever else it means to be the Church, to be his followers, this takes us to very heart of it. In the early centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, people in the Roman empire could not make much sense of Christian beliefs. All that talk about body and blood made people think that this new “sect” were a bunch of cannibals. But what they could not deny was that they loved each other and that they showed that love to the poor and the hungry and the sick. “See how they love one another,” they said. More than anything else, that was a powerful witness to the world that attracted others.

As we heard in this same farewell discourse, Jesus is explaining that he must go to prepare a place for them. But they should not let their hearts be troubled, because they know the way to where he is going. It’s like a preacher rolling along in a sermon, or a professor who is gaining momentum in her lecture—only everyone listening is starting to get a little bit lost. It takes that one student who is willing to raise his hand and say, “excuse me professor, can we back up?”

And guess who that student is? It’s our friend, Thomas. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. So how can we possibly know the way?"

Don’t you love that? I said this on the second Sunday of Easter but it bears repeating: Thomas shows us how to be people of faith and that we should never, ever fear the questions. The questions, and even our doubts, lead us to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. If we sit on our hands and just nod our heads we don’t deepen our faith. If we pretend it’s easy, we don’t grow. Questions, uncertainty, confusion – these are all actually gifts of the Holy Spirit because they lead us into deeper conversation with God and with each other.

Whenever I lead a Bible study and someone says, “sorry, I know this is a dumb question, but…” I always say “stop there! No dumb questions.  Really!" The questions are good because they make it real, they help us find a way in. At Holy Baptism we pray that the baptized will have an “inquiring and discerning heart.” When a person raises her hand, asks a big question, we should give thanks because it is a sign that this prayer is being answered.

So Jesus says to the disciples: “you all know where I am going…” and Thomas says:

…um, Lord, no we don’t. Maybe I’m the only one here, but maybe I speak for all of us when I say, we have no idea what you are talking about or where you are going. So how can we know the way?

And it is in response to that question that Jesus says: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” It is so important for us to hear those words in context: Jesus is essentially telling the disciples that he will be their GPS, that he will lead them where they need to go, that he will be with them throughout the journey—however long it takes and wherever it may lead them. He is not uttering these words as a threat to Muslims or Buddhists or atheists. He’s not saying (although I saw a billboard recently that misquoted Jesus) I am the only way, the only truth, the only life. Everyone else goes to hell - does not pass go, does not collect $200. 

So this is probably not the best text to help guide our interfaith conversations with people of other faiths. Or maybe it is, but not in the way we might think. But it is most definitely not some threat to hold over their heads: people don’t come to God by fear, they come by the way of love.

Where this text is helpful is for the beloved community - we who have been claimed already by Jesus - to remember who we are. To remember when we are lost, or confused, or our hearts are troubled, or the future of our congregation is unclear that we don’t have or need all the answers. We just need to keep our eyes on Jesus, who is the way to the truth and the life and to the living God. 

How can we know the way? We can trust that Jesus will not let us down. We may not be able to see the end of the path, but we can keep our eyes on the one who is trustworthy and will get us to where we need to go. That, I think, is the good news of these words from John’s Gospel. They are words addressed to his us and a reminder that we can carry on. Knowing this, and living this, is what it means to be God’s Easter people. Our work is to keep putting our trust in this risen Christ, as we learn to live one day at a time, embracing each new day as sheer gift.

“So not let your hearts be troubled.” I will see you again in the fall but in the meantime I leave you with these words from our Lord: do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep your attention focused on Jesus, who is the way, and the truth, and the life. Whatever may come your way, we are all stronger and better off to be close to him as our guide than we are relying on our own abilities.

And keep asking questions, like Thomas. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear. Because fear paralyzes and immobilizes us. And because fear divides us. The opposite of faith is that which separates us from God and each other.

Doubt is ok – it’s normal and healthy, especially when it leads us to articulate a really good question. And there are no dumb questions! Congregations and people who have all the answers are not life-giving in my humble opinion. In large measure because even if the answer worked once before, when things shift and the context changes it’s no longer the right answer. There is nothing sadder than a Church offering answers to questions no one is asking. 

So congregations and people who are alive learn to ask better questions. We need to keep asking the questions a two-year old asks, and maybe that’s what Jesus really meant when he said we must become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God. Why is the sky blue? Who said? What if? When? Where? How come?  

And in our faith journeys, it is a good and holy thing to ask questions like: where did that belief come from? Even if it was once true for, is it still? What does it cost me to hold onto that? Where is God inviting me to let go of something that I’ve held onto for too long?

And in a congregation like this one, how about these Thomas-like questions to explore for a while: I wonder what God is up to right now? How can we develop eyes that see, and ears to hear that new thing? What will need to change in us to embrace that and move forward? What is God asking of me in the midst of all this change? How might this congregation more faithfully serve the living God in this community and beyond? 

Give us, O Lord, inquiring and discerning hearts. Give us better questions that lead us to you: the way, the truth, the life. Amen.  

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