Easter 5 Year A
Sunday, May 14, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
As many of you know, I spent my undergraduate years at a very small liberal arts college in Tennessee.
It’s official name is The University of the South, founded and still owned by southern Episcopal dioceses;
But people refer to it, more informally, by the name of the town where it’s located, Sewanee.
There’s a third name, too, for those of us who are lucky enough to spend 4 years on its 13,000 acre Cumberland Plateau campus, and that’s simply, The Domain.
Traditions, at Sewanee, are very carefully tended - its various names are just the beginning - and these traditions are religiously passed on to each in-coming class of new students and observed all the way until the graduation ceremony . . . which is still in Latin, by the way . . . another one of Sewanee’s traditions.
But there’s one tradition we don’t leave behind at graduation.
There’s one tradition we take with us.
And that’s the Sewanee Angel.
As legend has it, Sewanee Angels linger right at the stone gates of The Domain, waiting for students to leave the campus.
So, when we drive through the gates, out into the world, we reach up and touch the ceiling of our car and grab hold of one of the angels waiting there, who then sits on our shoulder for the time we are away from campus.
Any time we return to the campus, we touch the ceiling again, letting our angel go to rest – because after all, no one needs an angel’s protection at a college as idyllic as Sewanee.
Everyone enrolled at Sewanee gets their own personal angel.
It’s a tradition of blessing, an acknowledgment of the life-changing formation that takes place within The Domain of the University, while it is also a tradition of presence, which ‘names’ the fact that Sewanee students take its security, wisdom, and ideals out into the world when you leave.
Today’s Gospel lesson reminded me of my Sewanee angel.
And while this lesson may seem jarring during this Easter season – especially for those of you who have enjoyed a month worth of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances here in worship – today, it’s quite the opposite.
Today, we find Jesus preparing his disciples for his departure from this world. Jesus is preparing his closest friends – those who have given up everything to follow him . . . those who have witnessed the healing transformation of so many . . . those who have seen his transfiguration. . . those who have put ALL of their hope and faith in him – for life without him, for life after his brutal death on the cross.
How can they possibly go on without him, they’re wondering?
Jesus knows their fear. So today, essentially, is that moment when Jesus is preparing his disciples to drive through the stone gates, to leave The Domain.
The first step in that preparation is comfort. Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
We’ve heard these words a lot here at St. Paul’s. Almost every funeral service includes them. And we turn to them, too, for comfort as we experience other trials and tribulations throughout our lives.
But what makes these words so powerful – at least for me – what makes these words REAL, and not just empty platitudes – is that Jesus actually knew what it meant to be troubled. Jesus has been there.
He was troubled when his dear friend, Lazarus died.
He was troubled when he realized it would be one of his own disciples who would betray him.
And of course, he was troubled by his impending torture and death.
Jesus knew full-well the hardship, grief, disappointment and fear that we all know. And yes, it troubled him.
But he also knew, intimately and completely, the comforting presence of God, the strength of hope, and the power of love. That’s why he could say it. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
He knew the depths of despair. AND he knew the power of Love’s presence.
And that was Jesus’ next lesson for his disciples. Presence. The way to the Father – the way to God – the way to Love – was him. Was Jesus.
Now John, in his Gospel, goes to great lengths to try and make this clear for us. But I’m afraid that his writing – his theological twists and turns, his repetition – makes his point seem even more CONfused. Or worse.
This passage gets MISused – even Abused – all the time.
After all, Jesus was trying to comfort and reassure his disciples, not create some sort of litmus test for Christians or a passage of exclusion for all others. That wasn’t Jesus’ point.
Remember, Jesus knew what it meant to be troubled.
He also knew what it meant to BE God – to BE Love.
And throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated that Love didn’t expect a certain look, or a passing grade on an entrance exam. Love didn’t demand perfection. And Love didn’t stop at the boundaries we create.
So, when Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6), he wasn’t saying that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. And he wasn’t saying that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.”
He was saying, just that HE WAS. Jesus is the way. Love is the way to God, and the way OF God. So, yes, to answer the disciple’s question, we DO know the way.
This past week, as I have continued to recover from my illness, it occurred to Bunker that perhaps it was time for me to return to Sewanee, and drive back through those stone gates of The Domain. Clearly, my angel needs some time to rest.
But thankfully – and seriously – I don’t really need to make that trip. Because it’s not up to my angel-talisman to comfort and protect me. The next time, I reach up and touch the ceiling of my car, looking for my angel, I will hear Jesus say, “Do not let YOUR heart be troubled” and rest in God’s presence.
Because Jesus’ message to his disciples – his message to us - is that in times when we experience the cross – in life’s difficult times: in times of betrayal, in times of rejection, in times of hatred or evil (and we heard about some of that evil today, in our lesson from Acts, as Stephen became the first Christian martyr) – we are never, not ever, not even for a moment, alone; and we know the way to God already. Guideposts look like Resurrection, Life, and Love. . . . It looks like Jesus.