Saturday, April 19, 2008
Here's tomorrow homily. I'll be guest preaching at St. Catherine's in south Reno, and I don't know the parish, so I've kept the theology in this homily slightly more orthodox than my own.
The advantage of being a guest preacher is that this congregation hasn't heard my other homilies, which allowed me to recycle two paragraphs from this homily. Fitting for Earth Day, don't you think?
The readings are Acts 7:55-60 and John 14:1-14. Thanks, as always, to Gary for his excellent editing.
Today’s Gospel is both one of the most comforting passages in the lectionary and, paradoxically, one of the most dismaying. The comfort is obvious: Jesus assures his followers that His Father’s house contains many dwelling places, that there are rooms for all of his friends. I like to imagine that each of these rooms is decorated to personal taste, that the Christian who favors dayglo wallpaper and shag carpeting on the ceiling will be made as comfortable in God’s house as her neighbor, who prefers Shaker simplicity.
After this assurance, the disciples still have questions. Thomas asks, in effect, “How can we follow you if we don’t know where you’re going?”
Jesus answers, famously, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” But then he goes on to say, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is the sore point. During my Preachers-in-Training class, our teacher talked about this passage. Because it promises comfort after death, it’s often requested at funerals, but most funerals are attended by a number of non-Christian family and friends of the deceased. Comforting his own followers, Jesus appears to be slamming the door of God’s house in everyone else’s face. He seems to be saying, “There are many dwelling places for my people, but there’s no room at the inn for the rest of you.”
I’ve attended Christian funerals where pastors emphasized that message, promising hellfire to anyone sitting in the pews who didn’t embrace Jesus. But that isn’t how Episcopalians tend to do things. Many of us believe that, to paraphrase Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Jesus is our Way, Truth and Life, but that God -- who is infinitely bigger than our own hearts and imaginations -- offers other ways to people of other faiths. And even if we believe that everyone must come to Jesus for salvation, most of us wouldn’t use a funeral as an occasion to deepen the pain of people in grief, to widen the gulf between us and them. To me, at least, that seems an odd definition of loving one’s neighbor, not to mention a shaky recruitment strategy.
How, then, can we extend the comfort of this passage to everyone? And why are we reading this passage today, anyway? This morning’s service isn’t a funeral. We’re still celebrating Easter. But that means that we’re also preparing for the Ascension, for the time when Jesus will no longer be available to us in bodily form. That’s the proper context for this morning’s Gospel. The disciples know that soon they won’t be able to see Jesus anymore, and they’re scared. Having gotten him back after the Resurrection, they don’t want to lose him again.
Separation anxiety connects all of the situations I’ve mentioned this morning. At funerals, we mourn our separation from those we love and see no longer. We may also mourn the separation of the faithful from nonbelievers, and of nonbelievers from God. In this morning’s Gospel, the disciples are mourning Jesus’ imminent departure, wondering how they’ll follow someone they can no longer see.
“Anxiety” may be too mild a term for it; I think “terror” is closer to the mark. Rereading this passage, I remembered being a little girl and losing sight of my mother in a crowded department store. Everything was taller than I was: the racks of clothing, the other shoppers, the display counters. The store was so big! I couldn’t see over or around anything, and I couldn’t see my mother. I started sobbing, convinced that I’d never find her again.
The story had a happy ending. I couldn’t find my mother, but she found me. Because she was bigger than I was, she had a much better vantage point. She picked me up and wiped away my tears, and I clung to her hand all the way out to our car.
Jesus promises the same happy ending. “If I go to prepare a place for you,” he tells his disciples, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus is bigger than we are, and he has a better vantage point. Even if we can’t see him, because the world is so big, he’ll find us when we cry for him. He’ll pick us up and wipe away our tears, and he’ll hold our hands while he takes us home.
Something very like that, after all, happens to Stephen in today’s lesson from Acts. About to become the first Christian martyr, he receives a vision of comfort. “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Jesus has come to Stephen, and all Stephen has to do is move towards him. Jesus is the way, the signpost, to the place we are going. We know the way because we know and love Him: and, more importantly, because He knows and loves us. Just as the shepherd searches for the lost, crying lamb, and just as the mother searches for the lost, crying child, Jesus will search for and find us when we need him.
But we already love Jesus. What about the people who don’t love Him, although we love them? There are several answers to this question. The first is that we can, of course, always hope that they will someday come to share our faith. One of the witnesses of Stephen’s stoning was Saul, who underwent a powerful conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. Under his new name of Paul, he argued powerfully against separation anxiety. In his Epistle to the Romans, he wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But what about people who haven’t experienced Paul’s change of heart? My father, for example, is furiously anti-religious. My sister calls him a “fundamentalist atheist.” But this is the same man who shared his fierce passion for social justice with me when I was a child, who volunteered with the Legal Aid Society to represent poor clients who couldn’t pay for lawyers, who recently gave one of his walkers to a neighbor who couldn’t afford her own. My father loves his neighbor as himself. I have a hunch that he knows Jesus better than he thinks he does, and I’m certain that Jesus knows and loves him.
And I’ve come to believe that the love we have shared in life will comfort us in death, no matter what faith —- or lack of it —- we profess. I know a woman who died when she was nineteen. She drowned and was rescued by lifeguards, who resuscitated her. When she told me this story, she said, “I was dancing with my grandmother in heaven. It was beautiful. I was so happy to see her again, and when I opened my eyes on the beach, the first thing I said was, ‘Let me go back! Let me go back there!’” My friend isn’t religious, but she no longer fears death. She knows her grandmother is waiting.
Some of us may scoff at this story. We may believe that my friend only imagined dancing with her grandmother in heaven, that the whole thing was wishful thinking or a hallucination caused by lack of oxygen. But in my work as a volunteer hospital chaplain, I’ve heard many stories like this, usually from people who seem fully sane and rational. Hospice workers report that dying patients often attest to the presence of beloved friends and family who’ve gone ahead of them. Many years ago, I worked for a woman -— as no-nonsense and unsentimental a soul as I’ve ever met -— who died of cancer. At her funeral, a priest talked about visiting her in the hospital shortly before she died. Trying to comfort her, he told her that many dying people he knew had talked about seeing dead loved ones. Lucie nodded and said in her usual tart tone, “Oh, yes. They’ve already been here. They come and stand around the bed.” If our job as Christians is to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” surely it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that wherever we see someone we love, we also see Jesus.
And I think that Jesus appears in other forms, that reminders of God are all around us, if only we look for them. When we can’t find Christ in other people, we will be given other signs. This is as true in life as it is in death. Last year, during a time when I wasn’t feeling as close to God as I often do, I went for a walk on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I enjoy collecting rocks there, and I have many lovely stones veined with quartz in interesting patterns. As I strolled that day, I thought, “It would be nice to find a stone with a cross pattern.” This was less a prayer than a daydream; if it was a prayer, it was a challenge.
A few steps later, I looked down. Lying at my feet was this stone. You probably can’t see it from where you’re sitting, but the quartz veins form a perfect cross. Both startled and moved, I mouthed a silent, “Thank you.” Ever since then, I’ve kept this stone on my desk, a reminder that I am known and loved by the Lord who has promised, “I am with you always.”