It takes a big person to think of others when your own life hangs in the balance. This is Jesus in our lesson today. But he’s not the only one.
When a 30-something mother was diagnosed with a fast-moving illness that would take her life, she began a true labor of love. This mother wrote a series of letters for each of her two young children, letters for the future, letters meant to be read over the years as they made their way through life without her.
As she faced down death, this mother devoted herself to writing letter after letter. Some were meant for birthdays and significant holidays. Some were penned for milestone moments—first dates, first jobs, first cars. Some letters addressed life’s inevitable disappointments—the declined college application, the failed relationship, the opportunity that didn’t quite pan out.
This mother wrote for every occasion she could imagine. She even prepared a letter for her children in the event that their father fell in love and married again, thereby gracing them with a second mom.
Because this mother couldn’t be with her children to cheer and encourage and console them as they stepped into the future and grew into themselves, she wrote all sorts of letters for them to read, reread, and treasure.
Reflect on the depth of love that inspired all this. Jesus, too, had a similar impulse.
He didn’t write letters, of course, but in John’s gospel especially, we see just how invested Jesus was in thinking about what his disciples would need when he was no longer present to lean on and learn from.
And just so we’re clear about how comprehensive Jesus’ compassion was, remember that in John’s gospel, Jesus spends three full chapters preparing his disciples for what is to come.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” we hear Jesus tell his friends as he orients them toward a life without him by their side. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
As Jesus says this, he knows full well that they will indeed be troubled. How could they not be? “Do not let your hearts stay troubled” might be truer to Jesus’ caring intent.
I say this because every time I have read these words at a memorial service, the last thing I have wanted is for anyone to think—even for a moment—that they should close the spigot on their feelings and move on.
That’s what our culture tells us we should do, not Jesus.
Grief and loss gut us; to be asked to hurry our sorrow along or deny ourselves access to our troubled hearts are cruel demands.
Don’t let your hearts stay troubled, I think Jesus meant. This we can understand. This we can be helped by.
In the rest of our reading, though, Jesus waxes a little mystical, and we may not be sure what he means. For instance, what is Jesus hoping we will make of his assertion that “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places?”
Is Jesus speaking only of spiritual accommodations in the life beyond this life, or is he suggesting something about today, tomorrow, and all our earthly days to come?
If Jesus is going on ahead and preparing a place for us, is Jesus referring specifically to the eternal, to the great by and by, or is he speaking of our lives within this life—a day not yet come in which we will each have room to breathe easy, a day with space enough for all that we are, all that we know, all that we feel, all that makes us who and what we are, a day to come when no one confines us, crowds us, or cheats us of the expansiveness that is our birthright as God’s beloved children.
I ask because if the promise Jesus makes is one that can only be fulfilled in the next life, one that will be eventually honored in the hereafter, then what real hope have we now? What consolation do we have while we are still alive?
It troubles my heart to imagine that Jesus’ focus today is on eternity alone.
I know many people—and many different groups of people—who are not sufficiently comforted by promises of what awaits them beyond this life. For these friends and communities of friends, Jesus is the one who, even as he walks alongside us, goes ahead to arrange something spacious and lasting here and now.
And I don’t mean physical lodging, although if I were a person experiencing homelessness right now, you can be darned sure I would hang on with all my might to Jesus’ promise of his Father’s ample housing.
Not everyone needs a literal dwelling place. But so many within the human family, especially the sinned against and the forsaken, so many are longing for something that feels like home here on earth. So many in our world ache for the kinds of spaces and places and realities where justice comes, where hope settles in and stays, dwelling places for dented spirits and weary souls, settings and situations with more than ample room for everything that we feel and are. Isn’t this lived reality what Jesus meant when he prayed “on earth as it is in heaven?”
Within this life, many live in cramped quarters. If they have quarters at all, that is. Is it possible that even as Jesus is readying his friends for his impending death that he isn’t just making promises about the next life but is also speaking about what he intends for each and all of us within this one?
Last month I went to Denver to visit History Colorado’s new exhibit devoted to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. In that senseless, worst-of-its-kind event, 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho were slaughtered.
Encamped along Sandy Creek, as they had been ordered to do, nearly all those who were killed were women, children, the elderly, and infirm, along with twenty-some peace chiefs.
What I took in last month is the second iteration of History Colorado’s exhibit. The first was riddled with holes, omissions, and oversights—ones that staffers and visitors alike did not see until the Cheyenne and Arapaho people graciously and persistently pointed them out.
You see, the first version of History Colorado’s exhibit largely told the story from an Anglo perspective. It neglected to articulate the experience of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, especially those who are descendants of the massacre’s victims.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been to History Colorado in downtown Denver but if you have not, let me say that the building is incredibly substantial. It features four floors of well-curated, Colorado-themed exhibits.
And yet even as impressive a structure as it is, I have to think that for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, this building has felt painfully small. Because with that first Sand Creek exhibit, there was simply not room enough for everyone’s stories to be told—and in ways that were sufficiently honest.
The years-long oversight on History Colorado’s part had to have troubled many a Cheyenne and Arapaho heart. And for good reason. Because very little healing can come to a people whose story is not told. Just as repentance and repair cannot come from a people who are largely unaware of the truth.
Many of us are accustomed to hearing in Jesus’ words this morning a promise about the life to come. And while I would be the last to argue that Jesus is not speaking of this graced eventuality, I believe we would be wise to come at his meaning more comprehensively. That is, we would be wise to hear in Jesus’ words an inclusion of the lives we are living now, lives deserving of ample space to be and become, lives that beg for and warrant more than the cramped quarters we have inherited or that have been forced upon us.
What makes me think Jesus’ hope was that we would experience the utter spaciousness of his Father’s house here and now, not merely in the great by and by? Because of the lived relationship with God that had Jesus know and feel that in life, there are many dwelling places, many rooms, and many ways to experience his God, one’s self, and others.
What also convinces me that Jesus is speaking about here and now, and not merely next, is that Jesus says something at the end of this passage that is as centered in the present as anything we could possibly imagine. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”
Reflecting on the life of someone whose world was incredibly confined and confining, I long ago came to a realization that has never left me: we must never let ourselves get caught in anything too small.
By promising that there is room for us in his Father’s house, in his holy parent’s house, and that he is going ahead to prepare a place and bring us there, I hear Jesus aching for us to have lives marked by space and grace and freedom.
Isn’t this the way, the truth, and the life that Jesus embodied? Isn’t this what troubled his expansive heart, that we might not find our way there without his capable help?
Let us pray:
Grant us comfort and confidence as we face the unknowns beyond this life, O God. Fill us with the assurance that when we pass from this life into the next that we will be met with open arms, with boundless love.
As we continue our lives here on earth, give us more and more room to become, more space within ourselves to care and share, and more inward capacity to seek the way, the truth, and the life that Jesus holds out to us, we who find in him our true and lasting home.
Preached for Community Spirit Church (UCC) in Montrose, Colorado