Year A, Easter 5
As some of you know, my parents moved here just last week. It is wonderful to have them here. I could not be happier for so many reasons. Therefore it surprised me at how hard it was for me to say goodbye to their house. My dad was in the Navy for almost all of my youth. I was a late addition to the family and did not move around nearly as much as my brothers, but I never had a house or a place I was really attached to. When we moved to a tiny town in upstate New York when I was 16, I was kind of miserable. Yet I made amazing friends there and became very attached to the life my parents created. I loved that house. Even as a priest, my husband and I returned every year a few days after Christmas. Driving up the road, I would see the Christmas lights hanging from the balcony of the deck and every light lit. The house sat on a hill and from the road it seemed like a tree house.
|Painting of the house at Christmas by my brother, Bill Vincent
As soon as I walked in, I felt safe. I felt like I was home even though I had spent so little time there. This Christmas, as I packed up my old photo albums and yearbooks I could not stop crying. I kept thinking, what is wrong with me??? They are coming to live near me! This is just a house. Besides, you know what they say, home is where the heart is. That means a home can move. Yet even knowing that, it was still heart wrenching driving away for the last time.
The words of John 14 are familiar to me and probably familiar to many people. Those first 6 verses are the most common verses you will hear at any funeral…perhaps second only to Psalm 23, which we heard last week. While I have never asked anyone why they chose those verses, I assume it has a lot to do with the first line, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” It’s something that we all need to hear when we are grieving. It’s not saying, “Don’t be sad.” It’s saying, “Don’t let your heart be troubled.” To be troubled is a more permanent condition. It’s the kind of sadness that has no hope. Jesus is saying, if you believe in me, there is always hope, even in grief.
However, the part that sees to really resonate with people is, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus then goes on to tell his disciples who are gathered around him, desperate for words of comfort and hope– that he is going to prepare a place for them so that “there you may be also.” Many of us hear this and envision Jesus up in heaven in a magnificent mansion fluffing the pillows and opening the shades to let the bright effervescent light of the sun in. What could be more comforting than knowing that when this life is over, there will be a place for us that Jesus has prepared, a place where Jesus waits to greet us? It is an incredibly comforting image and one that I have preached at many funerals.
I suppose that the only thing that could be more comforting than knowing that there would be a place for us after death, would be knowing that there is a place for us while we are alive as well. Another way to read this text is: “In my father’s house there are many abiding places.” If you look through many of the readings for this Sunday, you will find this theme of abiding, or living with the Lord. It would seem that Jesus was not just referring to our final home, but the place where we can abide here, in this life. Jesus was telling his disciples (and that includes us) that there is a place here on earth where we can feel the presence of God, feel as though we are safe, at home.
When I was at college, there was one place where I always felt safe. It will be no shock to you to know that it was the college chapel. Yet it was surprising to me at the time. You see, before college, I had never felt at home in a church. Church was a nice place to go. I liked the music. I liked the essence of church. But it never felt like home. It was never a place I sought. Yet in college, the chapel was always open. There were rooms in the basement where we could study. One fridge was always stocked with Diet Dr. Pepper. And no matter what time you came (whether it was 10am or 1am) someone was almost always there. I studied there. I made friends there. I worshipped there. It was a safe place. It was a place where I felt that I belonged. The reason I felt like I belonged there was not just that there were people I knew and comfy chairs, but I felt close to God. It was like God was right there and I could pop in anytime.
When Jesus told the disciples about a dwelling place that was prepared for them, he wasn’t just talking about a future place where we all congregate after death. He was talking about the place where God abides. God isn’t just waiting for us in this mysterious place called, “life after death.” God is here with us now. This was important for the disciples to know because Jesus wanted them to understand that even after he died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven, he was still there with them. There was still a place for them, on earth, a safe place where God dwelled with them. They did not quite understand it at the time. It was only after Jesus spent time with them after his resurrection when they were able to fully comprehend what it was to abide with God, even though Jesus was not present in bodily form. Once they started to understand that, they were able to help other people have a sense of that abiding presence of God here on earth.
My parents moved last week. I helped them a little bit on their move. Even when their stuff was still in boxes….even though it was only the 2nd or 3rd time I had been there…I had this overwhelming feeling that I was coming home. It is nothing like where they used to live. It has none of the familiar smells, sounds, or views. But they are there. That is their dwelling place, which means it is a safe place for me. I feel the same way about St. John’s. When I walk into the sanctuary….it does not matter what day it is. It does not matter whether it is full, empty or mostly empty…it feels like home. It feels like the place that I belong, not because I am the rector here, not because I know the people here, but because this is a place where I can feel God. That is my prayer for all of you; that you can find God in this place, that this can be a home for you in your joy, in your grief, and in your doubt. There is always a place for you here. But more importantly, there is a place for you anywhere you go. When you experience the love of God, you are home. Welcome home.