May 10, 2020

Only the Lonely, III:Finding Our Way Home

Passage: John 14:1–14

Click here to listen to the podcast of this sermon.

“Eternal God, Wash away our dust and fear. Gather us into your strong arms and stoop down to speak to us this day. Silence in us all the noise. Startle us with the eternal truth Jesus spoke and his disciples bequeathed to us, and bless our thoughts so we will bravely walk forward to dwell with you. Amen"

The writer of John’s gospel paints a portrait of both a muscular Jesus and one who repeatedly demonstrates to his followers that he is of divine origin, focused on a divine purpose, and ministers with divine power.

For God so loved the world, God took on human flesh in Jesus to break down all of what prevents human flourishing and to show us the way to live.

The prologue of John’s gospel proclaims “To those who believe in him, he gave the power to become children of God.”

Jesus works signs to awaken belief, always pointing to God. Jesus tells his followers over and over that the worst of human challenges, they will overcome because of his union with God.

Jesus gathered his followers together for a last meal, stripped to the waist, knelt on the ground, washed their feet, and commanded them to love one another.

Imagine this half naked, Jesus, aware of his mortal demise, stands before you, outside forces threaten your life as well, and your feet are still dripping wet. Listen to his conversation from portions of John chapter 14:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God, have faith, then, in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,
otherwise I would I have told you.
If I go to prepare a place for you;
I am coming back to take you along with me,
so that where I am, you may also be.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him,
“Lord, we do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”…

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show the Father and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus replied, “have I been with you this whole time,
Philip, and still you do not know me?
Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.
I do not speak on my own;
but it is God who dwells in me who does this work.

Very truly, I tell you,
the one who believes in me
will also do the works that I do,
and in fact, will do greater works than these.
I am going to the Father and
I will do whatever you ask in my name.”

I want to open with a story about my mom. It’s Mothers Day and I miss her. I know some of you miss your mother or a mother’s love if from someone other than you mother. Some of you may never see your mom again. And others know their mom or mothers are stretched to the limits.

Dementia robs my mom of the ability to quilt and sew, hold much of a conversation and it continues to shrink her world, creating a loneliness even companionship does not cure.

During her decline and while we could be together, we pieced together jigsaw puzzles created specifically for those with dementia.

As with other jigsaw puzzles we’d start at the edges to work our way in. She didn’t look at the picture as a guide; she would work with the pieces before her.

The puzzle we reached for most often bears a Shaker-style image of a country wedding with bride and groom alighting to a horse drawn buggy, kids bounding around the wildflowers, while a black-robed minister beams. At the center stands a white-steeple-ed country church with a sign in the yard proclaiming the simple truth: “God is love.”

It always brought a smile to her face to not only put the pieces together with me but to create an image she knew in her heart, she had lived and taught: God is love.

The current puzzle craze causes me to I remember those times. Once stay-at-home orders began to pervade the nation our shopping habits reveal not just our obsession with masks and Clorox wipes, we have emptied all the online retailers’ stores of jigsaw puzzles.

Early in the 20th century Parker Brothers began to produce jigsaw puzzles to entertain and educate. As demand bulged during the Great Depression, the company hired women.

At that time women had mastered the treadle sewing machines—a treadle manipulated with your feet powered the machine.  (My mother learned to sew on a treadle machine and decades ago tried to show me how to coordinate my feet with the fine work of sewing a seam when we visited my grandma.)

Women possessed the skill to cut large images into interlocking pieces with a treadle saw, a jigsaw. Hence—jigsaw puzzle.

During the Depression, 10 million jigsaw puzzles were sold each week.[1] Simple games and inexpensive entertainment eased the anxiety of the time.

Last month, with four billion people in quarantine across the world we consumed puzzles to the extent some websites state “we cannot fulfill any more orders” without a future date. Can you imagine saying, “go away” to customers?

Putting together a jigsaw puzzle releases your mind from worry by requiring you to concentrate and to see, really to see the graded hues and shapes within the image, and search for the correct fit between pieces. You look for patterns. Sometimes you can stare for so long you miss obvious, and then with patience, grasp the possibilities.

Completing a puzzle bestows a sense of control and structure—two elusive sensations in our lives today.

Perhaps a subtle reason puzzles soothe us is because our lives have been cut to pieces. We no longer fit together as we once did. Within families. Friends. Co-workers.

We don’t recognize masked faces of our friends and neighbors at the store. We feel disconnected. And in some homes claustrophobia sets in from so much crowding we feel just as alienated as if we were alone.

Many of our activities and hobbies that once filled our lives are like pieces that have disappeared altogether. We grieve those pieces missing and comfortable routines.

It’s like we have an unknown number of pieces to assemble, some on the floor, eaten by the dog, and do not have the photograph of the intended way to solve the puzzle.

We know our lives will not go back to the way they were before. And yet we wonder about the way forward.

Jesus led his ministry with clarity of purpose and an unwavering confidence in his relationship with God, often warning his followers his way of life is not easy, it demands choices, and is the only way that leads to God and a life nothing can destroy.

For three years Jesus disrupted the norms that segregated and controlled people by politics, religions, culture, tribe, and all the ways we confine one another. As if Jesus took a jigsaw to the landscape of their lives and sawed them into myriad pieces, discarding some toxic elements.

While he broke apart, Jesus also knit together a beloved community, teaching those who followed him the basics. Serve God first. Heal the sick. Feed the hungry. Respect the dignity of all human life. Protect the vulnerable. Be fair with each other.

As the disciples followed Jesus, their loyalties shifted to no longer serve other gods to become instead dependent on the divine power revealed in Jesus.

As much as the disciples’ lives may have appeared unmoored and scattered while following this itinerant rabbi, in reality they grew intimate with each other and God.

Jesus’ ministry culminates in a last meal of simple gifts and a clear command: “love one another as I love you.”

He needed to sear that command into their hearts as next he said: “I am leaving to be with God, and you know the way to follow me.”

As Thomas—the twin who stands in for us now and later—asks, “Where? What way?”

The way is quite simply to continue to do what Jesus did. Care for the lost, the least and the lonely. Teach compassion. Stand up to bullies. Pray. Pray to God. And, love one another.

For three years the disciples lived the way that leads to truth and life and God.

Yet, Philip’s fear speaks for all of us: “Can you show us God?”

Not backing down, Jesus presses…” you saw me feed thousands from mere scraps of fish and bread, calm the raging storms, and raise Lazarus from the dead. You’ve seen what God can do.”

Hear again the promise Jesus makes to Philip and us:

“Very truly, I tell you,
the one who believes in me
will also do the works that I do,
and in fact, will do greater works than these.
I am going to the Father and
I will do whatever you ask in my name.”

Do you wonder what they asked for? That night? A week later? Years later? Amidst rubble, they saw possibilities. Loners built a beloved community. We know Jesus bequeathed a power to them to create a world reflecting God’s love.

We rest on the legacy of their belief. Christianity spread like wildfire when no one would have thought grace and love could vanquish the grip of Cesar’s money and power. By calling on Jesus, they interlocked themselves into a force of good and trusted Jesus to fill the chasm of any missing pieces with new life.

Six weeks of sheltering in place is akin to the forty days of testing as recorded in scripture. Moses retreated to the desert for forty days. A simple meal sustained Elijah for a forty-day trek to Mt Horeb. Jesus’ fast and the temptation lasted forty days.

Forty days measures the limits of the human endurance.

Forty days is also a time of mourning. Saying goodbye to beloved people and aspects of our lives leaves gapping holes. We grieve in proportion to how much we love. Faith traditions ask us to honor such loss by wearing sackcloth and ashes. Lean into grief and do not pretend our lives are fine.

And at the end of forty days, we make a way forward. Those disciples knew it. Jesus’ death utterly shattered them…and yet, they witnessed God’s power to claim victory over death, to bring life from darkness. They made a way forward and so can we.

After forty days of stay-at-home, we look towards the future. Before we debate how and when we reconnect our lives, perhaps we begin by asking “where are we going?”

Are we willing to listen to Jesus, follow his way to truth and life?

If we humble ourselves to his way, remember he promises we will do greater things if we ask in his name. And what we ask of Jesus reveals just how just how powerful we believe God to be.

To press the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle again—our future is ours to imagine.

Let’s imagine a future with no child ever hungry or without medical care. We would continue to walk gently on this earth so streams continue to run clear and wildlife thrives.

As we let go of stay-at-home orders, we continue to embrace the rest of Sabbath with God, rest from the frenetic pace.

No essential worker would be treated as disposable.

We would no longer press nurses and health care workers into the role of martyr and hero, but let them offer the tender care for which they felt called.

Can we ask God to be with us as we seek to soften the hatred that kills young black men who exercise in the mid-afternoon? Let’s wonder about a community with neighbors continuing to help neighbors without the vitriol that we’d become accustomed to.

We become children of God not through human endeavor but by relying upon God’s power and presence to knit together a community to allow flourishing.

A way forward, with God’s help, is ours for the imagining. Make a list…you’ve got time. What will you ask from Jesus as you make a way forward? If not us, who? If not now, when?

Do not let your hearts be troubled.