“Do not let your hearts be troubled…” These are the words Jesus says to us this morning. I don’t know about you, but I have been troubled lately. Subtract the feeling of being shut-in, or the act of caring for children 24/7– that’s not what is troubling me. Introvert that I am, I can find lots of things to occupy my time during the week especially when work and home blur together and kids are involved with their daily spats and hurts. No, that isn’t the problem. The trouble is that I am deeply disappointed and horrified at our country. Each day I grow more troubled for what has passed for care and concern in this mix of nationalism, hypocritical “freedom,” and democratic civilization. With yet another young black man’s death —say his name—Ahmaud Arbery— at the hands of two self-appointed vigilantes and how shocking this is for many of us with privilege and how incredibly non-shocking it is for many others, who have simply seen too many crucifixions to count. With each death, I want to believe in our ability to fix this—to somehow make laws or have governance that will overcome the nastiness of racism, the terrible causes of our climate change, the horribleness of this Covid-19 virus and how it has put our national problems on display, and my complete inability to explain any of this to my children in a way that keeps the light shining in their eyes and in my own. I want to believe in our ability to address all of this—at the same time, no less, but most days, I struggle to believe.
And I wonder if this might have been what prompted Jesus to give this pre-crucifixion pep-talk to his disciples, part of what is known as Jesus’ “farewell discourses.” It is as if he were saying, “I know that, very soon, you are going to be deeply troubled and lost in a sea of emotions.” But the confused disciples are looking for something concrete; instead, Jesus is giving them an enigmatic farewell that seems beyond their capacity to understand. Thomas wants to know where Jesus is going—it’s a fair question given that they’ve accompanied him to and fro since he called them from their fishing nets and daily employ. Philip wants Jesus to show him Abba, the Creator God, only then, he says, he (and the others) will be satisfied.
Our satisfaction is a curious thing. We want proof, then we will be satisfied. Then we will believe. Then we will act. And so we delay, and delay, and delay…and another man is shot, and we don’t believe the horrific testimony of others until we see a video clip or a testimony that has viewer warnings attached. Our struggles with communal gun violence do not require a single solution, nor does the sin of racism. Most of our problems do not lend themselves to a single approach, but they do require a kind of focus and a discontent that makes many downright uncomfortable. The inventor, Thomas Edison wrote, “Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.”
When is our progress as a beloved community and a community of faith hindered because we, like Philip, demand more and more visual and certain proof? When is our desire to be satisfied, like Philip, a kind of coverup? When should we move ahead based on what we have learned already and know to be true? If we are waiting for some magical moment when all uncertainty will vanish, we wait in vain, particularly when there are steps that we can take right now to act in accordance with the spiritual truths that we know and have experienced.
Show us the Father, Philip demands, and Jesus points to the basic truth that God is in him, and he is in God, just as you are in God and God is in you.
I do not believe that we’ve truly embraced the belief that God is in each one of us. Had we done so, we might not have millions suffering without sufficient healthcare just as a global pandemic hits. We might have understood that our ability to be employed is not universal and therefore tying healthcare to employment will only care for the holy in some and not the holy in others. Had we understood that we are in God and God is in us, we might have prioritized care for our earthly temple, not as an after-thought, but as basic and instrumental to God’s (and therefore our) well-being. This idea of God existing in Jesus and Jesus existing in God is a polarizing one, but only if we limit mutual Godly relationship to Jesus alone. What if the Way that Jesus taught and practiced were a Way of seeing humanity with new eyes? Both our incredible depravity AND our incredible potential?
Perhaps you find it ironic, like me, that at a time when we must practice physical and social distance to increase our chances for survival, we need one another more than ever to stop being so distant from each other emotionally, mentally, ideologically, and spiritually. So long as they are not personally living in a Covid-19 hotspot, some would have us go about life as if nothing had changed. As long as some have not experienced the horror of being shot at while jogging, some would have us pretend that Ahmaud was somehow just in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than to examine the laws and culture that somehow emboldened two white men to decide that they were both judge and jury for someone they had never met. As long as climate change doesn’t affect my insurance rate or my ability to move from one devastated area to another, or my particular investments, I might pretend that coastal communities are simply asking for trouble and that they somehow deserve their fate, without examining why the larger picture of companies, international and national economic policies stripping our earth of resources should actually matter to me too.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus and we may rightly counter our Savior that we SHOULD be troubled if we have a heart at all. We might consider that Jesus is asking the disciples not to throw up their hands after his death or in the midst of dire troubles but to shift their focus from what THEY feel they need: whether assurances, proof, or a roadmap– and instead focus on what God might need from us.
“Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, but if you do not, then believe in the works themselves.” And then we ask, “What works, Jesus?” The works in which we might rise to believe are the good works around us that are representative of a caring, divine spirit at work in human nature. It is frustratingly simple and easy to focus on everything that is wrong. Indeed, we must let these things trouble our hearts and minds and souls, if we have any humanity at all. But we also need to retrain our eyes to seeing God at work in the world and in us, and relentlessly lift up the ones who are embodying God’s spirit right now. Despair is tempting when you feel as if the world around you is going to hell in a handbasket. It is much harder when you feel you have some say and investment in the direction.
Jesus knew his disciples would be despairing of his death and their little movement. What happens when all your hopes and dreams are pinned to a cross by a powerful entity that could care less about your rights, your health, or your future well-being? Despair may be understandable but not a place to live.
And because despair is not a place for human beings to truly live, Jesus speaks of preparing a place for his disciples, for you and for me. So many scholars have interpreted this to mean that Jesus prepares a place in eternity, in the heavens, or after death. I have too, at times. These are some of the most comforting words to speak at memorial and funeral services. But Jesus wasn’t preparing his followers to die like some horrific cultic practice after the charismatic leader dies. Jesus was preparing his disciples to live—in a brutal but beautiful world.
“Preparing a place” may also mean preparing one to receive and to see God in the good, in the many “rooms” of help and hope that surround us, that are even being prepared now, though we cannot yet see them, or even imagine they exist. The room of the scientist working on a cure, the room of the worker taking precautions for the ones he tirelessly serves, the room of the political intern who sees the injustice unfolding and feels she actually can do her part to counter it, the room of the businessperson who sees different way to manage his business and to keep his heart, the room of the despairing one who says that he will shift his focus ever so slightly and stay a while longer because he senses a larger Mystery unfolding—and caring—for him.
“Where I am, there you will be also…” Dare you believe it? Do you trust yourself to go there? Only you and God know where “there” is for you. There may be a place, an idea, an act of kindness, or a calling. Just as Jesus did the works of his Abba, you can also do the works of Jesus, and of our Mothering God, who teaches us a gentler way of walking and interacting with our world. A way that depends upon healthy relationship and stepping outside of our need to be satisfied before trusting God with our lives and our hearts.
In Spirituality & Health magazine, Mark Nepo wrote, “This is the hard-to-grasp lesson—at least one of them—that light must move as quickly as dark, that care must move as quickly as disease, that give must move as quickly as take. And nothing less than everything depends on this giving in all directions without hesitation. No question, it is hard and yet imperative to feed more than the fear. We must become intimate with uncertainty and water our common roots with care…” 1
Like the narrator of Ada Limón‘s poem, “The Burying Beetle,” who confesses that she lost God long ago, we may feel as if God is socially distant from us.2 But we would be mistaken. Just as Limón could still feel the plants “deepening right now into the soil, wanting to live” as she lay down among them, among the dirt and beetles still turning the soil, so too, you have come to this room that God prepared for you—you who see the problems mounting all around you and even in you– and still have the audacity to care and to pray that your small actions will make a difference.