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Sun, May 10, 2020

Hearts Untroubled

Duration:17 mins 13 secs

Hearts Untroubled

Sermon on John 14:1-11

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

            The verses in this little snippet from John’s Gospel are the introduction to a very long good-bye speech by Jesus on his last night on earth. The speech moves in loops and circles, as Jesus keeps coming back to a few themes that he repeats over and over again to make sure he is understood: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust me; I am not abandoning you. Love God; love me; love each other. Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

          In this farewell speech, Jesus tells his disciples that what he has started in the world they will have to continue. He warns them of hardships they will face, but tells them not to be afraid.

          The disciples have given up everything to follow this man: possessions, livelihoods, families. And he has shared everything that is possible to share with them: stories, instruction, long, leisurely meals with conversations lasting deep into the night – and most of all, himself.

          Jesus and his disciples are as close as people can be to each other. They have bonded in a way that is only possible for people who see each other every single day, through good times and bad. In other words, they are a family.

          But now it is all coming to an end. Jesus doesn’t exactly say he’s going to die, only that he will be gone for a while and then will be back, and they don’t understand what he means. Their hearts are troubled, and their minds are perplexed. “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going,” Thomas says. “How do you expect us to know the way?” Philip says, “Just show us the Father, and we’ll shut up. Give us something that we can hold on to.”

          They are so scared and anxious about the future that they are forgetting all the things Jesus has told them about himself – how if they want to know what God is like, they just need to look at him; how if they want to know what real life is, they just need to trust in him; how if they want to know where they are going, they just need to follow him.

          What he’s doing is helping them pull themselves together before he goes. That’s because they are going to be left in charge, to carry on his work in the world, and there is a real danger that in the stress and anxiety caused by his absence, they will fall apart. With any group, there is always the danger that when the leader leaves, the group will lose the sense of a center and drift apart from each other. They may be paralyzed by helplessness or dissipate their energy in arguments and rivalries. These are common group dynamics in times of fear and uncertainty, and Jesus knows the danger is there for his disciples. He also knows that they will be carrying out his work in a hostile world, and that it will be easy for them to despair and give up. So he reminds them of what has brought them together in the first place, knowing that if they can keep reminding themselves of that, they will be all right.

          He is going away, but he is also going ahead of them, to prepare a place for them. It is a heavenly place, but it is here on earth, too. He is leaving them, but he is not abandoning them. What Jesus is saying to them, in a way they can’t yet understand, is that his going to God will make it

possible for them to join in the relationship he has with the Father. “Where I am, there you may be also”: in other words, “you are not being left to your own devices. You will certainly have troubles in the world, but they will not overwhelm you. Whatever happens, there is still a place for you, with me, in the very heart of God. So don’t worry. Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

          Remembering these words of comfort and assurance, reminding ourselves of the person who said them, is how the church has held on for twenty centuries, through persecutions, schisms and reformations, wars and political upheaval, threats from within and without. By most standards of logic, the church should have died out centuries ago, but it has not.

          And in many ways, the church has been its best self when it has been under threat. Being comfortable has never been very conducive to the church being faithful to its mission. A church that was too comfortable stood by, for the most part, when the Nazis took power in Germany in the 1930s, as apartheid was institutionalized in South Africa, and during centuries of slavery in America -- and not just stood by, but mainly supported these institutions that went so completely counter to the Spirit of Jesus. The church has often been on the wrong side of history; indeed, it has often been on the wrong side of God.

But there have also been voices of courage and resistance. I think of the breakaway Confessing Church in Germany during the Nazi years (from which we get the Barmen Declaration in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions), the American churches in the North and South (mostly black but some white) who supported the civil rights movement in our country, and the Anglican church in South Africa under Desmond Tutu’s leadership in the apartheid era.

          I recently read Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” about the early years of the civil rights movement in our country. Reading this book often felt to me like reading the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, with its stories of courageous followers of Jesus not only standing up to the powers-that-be, but in some cases actually disarming them. The history of the civil rights movement is also church history, about people with no power in the world other than the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, overcoming hatred and discrimination through their eloquent speech and patient endurance. There are stories of people singing “Love Lifted Me” while U.S. marshals fired tear gas in their direction; or singing in prison like Paul and Silas, and softening the heart of a guard; or facing dogs and fire hoses and, by sheer moral and spiritual power, disarming the forces of the earthly authorities arrayed against them. These are pictures of the church as its best self, resolute and faithful in the face of opposition, confident that because we know and are known by Jesus Christ, we will never be abandoned.

          You may be wondering, “How do such bold actions of faith and courage apply to our situation today?” Right now our duty as a church is to stay home. Our enemy, unlike the enemies of the civil rights movement, is invisible and blind. It has no ideological agenda, no politics, no target group to persecute. The virus is an equal-opportunity invader. Seen in the light of what the church was up against in Nazi Germany or Jim Crow America, the battle against a virus may seem like an unworthy moral challenge for the church of Jesus Christ.

          It may be that the challenge for us will be to maintain our humanity as we are threatened by this unseen enemy that is keeping us apart and making us afraid. I’ve noticed recently that on the few occasions I do go out, to buy groceries or gas or pick up cat supplies curbside, people more and more have this air of being scared of each other. They glance furtively at each other above their masks, and may speak only to reprimand some clueless person going the wrong way down a grocery-store aisle. Some people’s anxiety spills over into impatience at the checkout counter, where they are actually at far less risk than the checkout clerk who has to stand there all day serving customer after customer. I think we have to be careful not to fall into that trap, because we are all afraid. Knowing that each person we encounter could be carrying the virus tends to put us in a suspicious frame of mind, which is not very conducive to actively loving our neighbor.

          There are things we can do to maintain our humanity and our character as the church. We can stay in touch with each other, not just with our own friends and family members, but also with the people who may be especially vulnerable or isolated. We can refuse to engage in the blame game that some of our political leaders revert to so easily, singling out groups or countries to accuse of causing or spreading the pandemic. We can make positive efforts to help the communities most affected by this virus, who tend to be low-income workers who can’t afford to stay home.  We can support food banks with funds or volunteer hours. We can affirm and uphold the humanity of others.

          “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said. He did not say, “You will always be happy and safe.” He did say, “You can live with integrity. You can live a real life instead of living in a fantasy land. You can face the truth without being overcome by it. You can remember that love is stronger than death.”  

          Jesus Christ has left us in charge of his church, but he has not left us to our own devices. He has prepared a place for each of us, a place where we can serve him and others, give and receive love, forgive and be forgiven, ask questions and struggle to find answers, and when our days on earth are done, a place where we can die in peace. There is a place for us in the heart of God, now and forever, in heaven and on earth.

          Sisters and brothers in Christ, I say to you what Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Remember who has claimed you and whose Spirit guides you. Where he is, there we may be also. 

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

May 10, 2020

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