Sunday, May 10, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Easter
"Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
If you knew you had only one more day to live, how would you spend it? If you find yourself mulling over that question for the remainder of this sermon – and you don’t pay attention to anything else I say – it will have been a good way for you to spend the next several minutes. I doubt it’s something you think about very often, but it was certainly on Jesus’ mind when he addressed the disciples in this section of John known as the “Farewell Discourses.”
I thought a lot about that this week as I listened to those compelling and oft times misunderstood words of Jesus – because it was clear this was foremost in his mind. His death was imminent. I’m sure he was well aware of that. And so, he offered to his closest friends what has sometimes been called a “love letter” to them. It’s important to remember, these were not words for the broader public. This was Jesus talking to the only ‘ohana he had – his chosen family and those who were closest to him. [Pause]
This was a difficult sermon to write and these are difficult words to preach. My thoughts today will likely poke at something in you (I know they do in me) that we don’t like to talk about very much. The implications are too painful and hit so close to home. But I ask you to stay with me if you can. You’re among friends. And as the oft-heard saying goes these days, “We’re all in this together.” [Pause]
Earlier this week I was invited by a foreman on a construction site near our church to offer a prayer and a blessing for his workers. You see, there had been a tragic accident that killed a fellow-worker at another one of their sites two days before, which sent shockwaves through the company. All the workers were given the day off following the accident. This was their first day back on the job and many of the workers – who looked very young to me – were, I imagine, confronting death for the first time in their lives. My heart literally ached as I looked into their eyes and tried to offer them an encouraging word relying on the resources that speak to me – scripture and prayer. [Pause]
I don’t know about you, but I find the older I get, the more I consider my own mortality – especially as it relates to what I want to do before I die. Early in my life and ministry I rarely gave death a thought – except when I HAD to. To some degree, I suppose, I kind of feared giving death any time at all. Having not experienced many deaths in my family, I didn’t know how to act, or what to say, when the phone call came from the mortuary or a family letting me know a loved one had died.
But then life happened, including – 20, 30, and now 40 years of ministry, and death somewhere along the way, became an integral part of life. Never easy – but inescapable – and gradually wore down the rough edges of my youth and young adulthood.
At first, the deaths were painful but kind of expected as when my grandparents died at advanced ages. The death of pets brought the first real stings to my sheltered life, but even then, my parents were able to convince me that when Holly and Laddie, and later Chippy died, they were now in a better place – their suffering was now over. I suppose it was the abrupt or unexpected ones that really began to get to me – the deaths of those without closure or time to say goodbye.
And so I’m still haunted by the teenage automobile accident that took the life of the daughter of my first secretary, and the sudden massive fatal heart attack of the young, athletic, and prominent church member – leaving a wife and two young daughters, the sudden death of my former partner – that occurred almost completely out of the blue, or the still-birth of our first biological granddaughter – a reality that broke my heart as I watched my son and daughter-in-law wallow in the pain of losing their first child. These and many others remind me that death is no stranger to any of us AND just how important it is to have the opportunity to say goodbye.
We’re living in a time when closure is almost impossible for most who are dying – interrupting the normal, natural and necessary process of grieving for loved ones and survivors. The pandemic has forced many of our loved ones to die alone with only attending clinicians permitted to hold their hands while they are left feeling nothing but guilt at not being able to save a life or cure a disease.
And so, whether we like it or not, OR whether we talk about it or try to avoid it altogether, life has a compelling way of teaching most of us an awful lot about death. And that is precisely what Jesus was trying to do in this beautiful love letter to his friends.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said. “You 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 and prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself. That where I am, there you may be also.
Remember, these were words of reassurance – words of love and support that Jesus was offering those who were the closest to him. And note, he spoke these words when his whole ministry seemed to be going up in smoke. Judas had already left the building – he was busy collecting his ransom as he prepared to betray Jesus. Peter had just been accused by Jesus as the one who would deny him. And neither Thomas nor Philip could figure out what the heck he was talking about. Suffice it to say, things were not ending well. Yet – even then – Jesus was able to speak a word of comfort – “Let now your hearts be troubled.
This experience of the disciples brought them to a new level of reality between what they believed (or thought they believed) and real life. It is at this complicated intersection – where believe meets life – that all of us find ourselves when confronted with death.
Like Philip most of us fool ourselves into thinking “If we can just see – or have some proof – we will be satisfied.” But will we? Really?
We never really know what’s coming next in our lives. Ours is not given to know – rather, ours is to be faithful and believe God is already there – and God promises to journey with us despite any circumstance we might face – in life and in death.
That’s why Jesus reassured his disciples and continues to reassure those of us who can hear him today with those beautiful words of comfort often read at memorial services, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” [Pause]
Our world tries to offer many solutions for a troubled heart – some that may even work for a time, but Jesus calls us back to the only permanent solution that we all need to be reminded of from time to time – it’s simple, but sometimes the most difficult thing to do, “Believe in God – believe also in me.”
Folks sometimes ask me, “Pastor, what happens to us when we die?” To which I must answer with all honesty, “I really don’t know.” No one really knows for sure. That’s why books and movies developed around this theme are so successful. There are no clear answers so anything is possible.
But what I am certain of – and an answer that brings me a great deal of peace is this: We were created in God’s image – in essence we come from God. And when we die, if we embrace the words of Jesus in this love letter, we will return to God in the end. “I will come to you and take you to myself,” Jesus says, “that where I am there you may be also.”
Isn’t that a beautiful thought? We have come from God – and to God we will return.
Over the next couple of weeks we will look further and deeper into this love letter of Jesus, but for now simply allow those words of comfort sustain you, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” For, in life and in death – we belong to God.
There’s a beautiful little Spanish hymn “Pues si vivimos,” whose lyrics remind us of the constancy of God’s embrace that is always with us – in life and in death, in quarantine and in total freedom, we are always in God’s arms. So, I invite you to close your eyes and hear these lyrics with new ears:
In all our living, we belong to God;
And in our dying, we are still with God;
So, whether living, or whether dying,
We belong to God; we belong to God.
Thanks be to God.
Mahalo ke Akua. Amen.