A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
May 22, 2011
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 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. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” John 14:1-14
The sexton was explaining to the new rector why he couldn’t post the sermon title as requested on the sign in front of the church:
“We don’t have question marks.”
“What do you mean?”
“The letters that you get with the board… You don’t get question marks with the set.”
Since the new rector’s sermon was entitled “Where is God?” he said this wouldn’t do, and maybe the sexton could make a question mark out of some other letters, and he did.
In the Episcopal Church, we DO indeed have question marks, and a lot of them. We believe that the way to a faith with integrity, a faith with “legs,” a faith that grows, is often through honest questions. Yet there are voices everywhere that would silence those questions— and silence us.
We are surrounded by people who use more exclamation points than question marks. Physicist Stephen Hawkings proclaims, “There is no heaven!” Eighty-nine-year old Harold Camping reads the Bible and announces that the world will end on May 21! Oh wait, that was yesterday…. Many politicians arrogantly hold themselves above compromise, because they are right! And a variety of bullies pound their views into others everywhere from the playground to the workplace. When question marks are totally eclipsed by exclamation points, when honest inquiry is stifled, people lapse into a reactive, enforced silence and progress stops. Tht is, unless violence steps in and becomes the enforcer of “truth.”
At a preaching conference last week in Minneapolis, Walter Brueggeman, professor emeritus of Hebrew Scripture and prolific writer, talked about the ways people can be silenced: the preacher who is afraid to speak his conscience on a political issue for fear of reprisals and even job loss; the person who is silenced by a family who will not accept who they really are; the employee whose boss is threatened by new ideas; the meeting where you are listened to but not heard so eventually you just give up; the relationship where you cannot be yourself; the many situations where we are labeled as “less than” because we are too old or too young, too uneducated or too educated.
Bruegemann talked about “the diminished sense of self that comes from a coerced silence,” the ways it cramps our humanness and makes us weary and even cynical. The remedy, he said, is simply telling the truth, at least as much as our situation and courage will permit. And that includes asking sincere questions. Even in church. Even of God.
We’re so grateful to those who speak the get it. When I got to meet Professor Brueggeman later and tell him how much his words meant to me, it was my version of a “Justin Bieber Moment,” although my Justin was a vibrant, seventy-year-old scholar with a beard.
Today’s Gospel is “The Farewell Discourse” of Jesus. It actually takes place after a last supper, and it is a gentle, intimate portrait of what friends ask when someone they love is going away: Where are you going? Why do you have to go? What will become of us once you’re gone? What’s going to happen to us after we die? Why should we believe what you say?
And tonight Jesus takes all questions!
He begins with common ground: “You believe in God,” he reminds the Disciples. Then he issues the invitation: “Believe also in me.” Believe that the Spirit of the One you call Yahweh is in me, in my words, in my actions, in my death and what will follow. You see what God the Creator is like when you look at me.
Thomas interrupts: But why do you have to go away? Where are you going? And how will we get there?
Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place in the Creator’s “house,” and that to get there you follow the Way he has himself followed: a life of compassion, humility, faith, and belief in the ultimate power of love.
But within this lesson is what theologian Marcus Borg calls “the most problematic verse in the Bible.” This single verse is often presented as argument, as a shrill statement of certainty and exclusion. This verse is used to hijack the words of Jesus to blow up the sincere faith of many Christians as well as of the majority of the world’s population. Maybe fundamentalist friends have quoted this verse to you.
Of course, it is this: “Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except through me.’”
Of course, we can use a single verse of the Bible to support almost anything from slavery to polygamy, even though the major themes of Scripture contradict it. Yet this single Bible verse is still trotted out to “prove” that other religions are wrong and only Christianity is right. It wouldn’t matter so much if this statement was not almost always accompanied by a political agenda that reflects exclusion of some human beings from human rights.
The exclusionary nature of this verse was reflected Friday in the opening prayer at the Minnesota legislature. A pastor named Bradlee Dean (of the ministry “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide”) asked everyone in this religiousy diverse body to “pray in the name of Jesus, ”also saying that “ Jesus Christ as the head of the domination, as every president up until 2008 has acknowledged.”
To their credit legislators from both sides deplored Dean’s words, including the insinuation President Obama is not a Christian, and the Speaker of the House immediately had someone else start the session over with a different prayer. According to the Star-Tribune, “Dean has caused uproars before, saying homosexuals should be jailed and making comments that appear to support their execution.” I think that Jesus would have been horrified.
Clearly, Pastor Dean does not know his Scripture.
First of all, “No one comes to the Father but by me” is inconsistent with virtually everything else Jesus says in any of the other three Gospels, and in the rest of John. In Mathew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is focused on healing the sick, fighting against injustice, calling for repentance, teaching the way of compassion and love. At the beginning of John he is described in almost cosmic terms as the Word, a Spirit present since before creation.
Secondly, John where the statement appears, was written for a different audience than the other three Gospels, some 70 years after the death of Jesus. Christianity had spread by then, and the audience for John was a Greek one with their panorama of deities, instead of the monotheistic Jewish God. John could well have been separating Jesus and his Father in heaven from the Twelve Gods who frolicked on Mount Olympus.
What is not said here is also important. Other religions are never mentioned in this passage, let alone condemned.
Jesus is not speaking at an interfaith conference with Hindus Buddhists, Jews and Muslims present, and telling them that their religious traditions are a sham. He is speaking to a small group of his closest friends on the night before he died. The language is love language. He was “giving them everything he could think of to help them survive without him..” (from Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Only Way to God,” a sermon at Duke Chapel, May 2, 1999)
Early Christians were known as followers of the Way. The Way of Jesus is the way of joy, suffering, death and rebirth. The Way acknowledges that one of us gets a suffering-free ride – Jesus certainly didn’t – but God is with us in our pain and ultimately redeems us from it. Of course, all the world’s great religions wrestle with the meaning of suffering. The first Noble Truth in Buddhism is that “Life is suffering.” The Way is not exclusive to Christianity, and Jesus never says it is. In fact, Jesus never used the word “Christian.”
Let’s circle back to an earlier part of the lesson: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Many rooms—rooms for those who have never heard of Jesus, lived before the time of Jesus, even live in other parts of the universe. Our own galaxy is 300,000 light years across and there are millions and even billions of such galaxies, stretching out across space. How can we, with our limited vision and knowledge, narrow the scope of the God who created and sustained the universe? In my Father’s house, Jesus says, there are many places to live. How much more inclusive a statement can you have? Question mark….
Someone described spirituality as a light seen through many panes of glass. That pane of light-filled glass for us as Christians is Jesus. For us, he points the Way to the bigger reality of God. We can embrace and live our faith fully and passionately without using a verse of our Scripture to arrogantly clobber other experiences of the Holy and smugly label them as wrong. This is beneath us.
There are times when silence is appropriate, of course. Jesus saw no point in responding to Pilate’s accusations. And sometimes there is no point in our engaging as well. Pastor Bradlee’s response to the furor in the legislature was this: “I said a prayer. If a prayer starts a firestorm, so be it. He added that he “felt sorry” for the legislative leadership if they didn’t get what he was saying.
The openness to questions Jesus displays in today’s Gospel shows us we do not have to silence our sincere questions. We need to be prudent and respectful, while not sacrificing our identity.
Sometimes questions remain unanswered, no matter how fervent our pleas for answers. Then something else is called for. When we were embarking on a new project and I was full of questions about how it might go, Frank Wilson used to always say, “Well, just let’s live into this for a while.” German poet, Ranier Maria Rilke, wrote a similar thing nearly a hundred years ago.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Amen (exclamation point!)