A More Light Congregation

Bethany Presbyterian Church


Friday was Ahmaud Arbery's 26th birthday.  But instead of looking forward to the day, his mother was planning a tribute for him.  She put out a call on instagram asking people to show solidarity for the injustice and loss her family has experienced, by jogging or walking 2.23 miles, 2.23 representing February 23rd, the day her son was brutally and blatantly murdered while jogging in his own neighborhood.

Do people not understand what bullets actually do?

In 2012 when a 20-year old young man killed more than 20 young children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, I thought I had finally had reached a tipping point.  I had a talk with my young nephew about it.  I told my nephew that because his video games were violent that I wasn't going to watch him play with them anymore.  He understood.  He thought that the person who did it was so bad that “he should have a funeral and no one comes.”  Even at 9 years old, he seemed to understand how punishing disconnection can be.

Since then, there have been so many unspeakable crimes that seem to get even more and more abhorrent.  Every time I think that certainly after this, I will be witnessing a better society not enough changes.  What really bothered me about Friday was that not only has nothing changed, but people seem to be getting bolder and bolder about how they behave badly.  Is there nothing that is too much!?

When I read Jesus' first words in today's text, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” I think, are you kidding me?  If this is the way our world is going, when are we not going to be troubled?”  Maybe I shouldn't try to write sermons when I'm mad.

I attended a webinar yesterday called "Conversations for Clinicians #7: Reflective Practices for Turbulent Times."  This was a crowdcasted event for anyone who wanted to hear about ways to express themselves during times when everything is new and unsettling.  There were about 100 of us.  We all registered but beyond that we were all anonymous unless we wanted to chat or engage further.  Some people were knitting, or writing, or listening, or drawing, or using a musical instrument, or dancing, or in my case playing with air dry clay.  They asked us to identify an emotion or two that kept coming up in the last few months, and then spend 15 minutes expressing ourselves in whatever way we wanted.

As always happens for me when people ask me those kinds of questions, I came up with nothing.  But I enjoy playing with the clay, so I just squished it around a little bit, and spent 15 minutes doing something.  This is what I came up with.

Reverend Debra McGuire

May 10, 2020

John 14:1-14

this agitates him, and disturbs him.  Evil lives. Just understanding what kind of deep trouble Jesus is referring to help me to take these first words more to heart, and maybe take them in.

John's gospel will spend three full chapters on Jesus' Farewell Discourse.  And the first thing Jesus offers is comfort.  One commentator says that this is Jesus at his pastoral best.

Jesus is not being sentimental.  Jesus knows that his disciples will be personally sad after his death, but more than that they will face events after Jesus' death that will make it look to them as if evil and death are having their way.  He isn't only trying to comfort them in their grief, but he wants to empower them to stand strong.  Do not let your hearts be troubled is a rallying cry for strength.

Reading scripture is completely about context.  Not just the context of where, when, how and to whom it was written, but our context too.  This includes our own personal context.  Our emotions and circumstances at the time of reading is an important and necessary thing to acknowledge when I approach scripture.  On my more cynical days I hear Christians say these one-liners, and I get frustrated at the fluff that passes for comfort that people want to offer.  When I'm not cynical and I'm more reflective, I know that nothing in the Bible is a one-liner.  Without a relationship with the text, without an outlook that has been built over time, and changed, and matured, then all the words in the Bible are just noisy gongs.

It's important to spend this much time at the beginning of the farewell discourse discussing the importance of context, especially our own.  I was reminded yesterday of how strange it is to be battling such a foe as the virus which is invisible to the naked eye.  We may be experiencing emotions that are new to us.  For that reason, during this time of the pandemic in particular I think paying attention to which part of us we bring to the reading of the text can offer us each our own personal and unique level of understanding.  The text will matter to us in a new way if we are more aware of ourselves.  

Another way this particular text matters to us, arguably more than others, is that this text has a few unique features.  

     - The Farewell Discourse is only found in the gospel of John.  

     - The usual pattern for the writer of this gospel only, is that there is first an event, then there is some              dialogue, and then there is a discourse by Jesus.  The text for today is the only time that pattern is               broken, because the event has not happened yet.

     - This text is written for the future.

This text matters for us because we like the disciples are living in the time after Jesus' resurrection.  The future focus of this text makes me think that maybe Jesus wasn't talking to people like us.  Maybe Jesus was talking to us.

In this text together with the continuation of this reading next week, Jesus offers comfort to the bewildered disciples.  How can they be any other way?  Looking back at what they have come to know and learn about Jesus, we can see that they have come so far and changed their thinking about him so much.  And in recent days for them, Jesus really did die, and then really did come back, but now he explains that he will be leaving them again.  Imagine the shock of it, and the loss – not just once at his death, but again now – and yet Jesus says to them Do not let your hearts be troubled.  He makes promises that are ours even today.

Jesus equates himself and God explicitly, in my opinion more here than any other time.  And next week we will read about his promise of the Spirit.  The trinity that comes to mind of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is promised here, is a promise that might only be recognized in hind site.  Once again the disciples will be called upon to remember this time.  To remember when he said “Believe in God, believe also in me.”  'If you know me, you will know my Father also.”  “From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,”   Of course Thomas and Philip didn't fully grasp what he was saying.  I'm not sure any of us would have either.  It must have felt beyond imagination.

More than any time in many of our lifetimes, we need to live beyond our imaginations right now.  We need to imagine that all of the strong leadership, professional and dogged workers out there every day over and over and over, all of the teddy bears in the windows, and all of the extra acts of kindness, and all of the chalk sidewalks and silly clay sculptures will outweigh the tragic and sometimes evil that we are experiencing right now.  We need to reach deep into our imaginations and find our own experiences of those promises of Jesus, of presence, and of comfort, and of strength and empowerment, to be the dawn of our own new day.

Unimaginable has never meant unattainable.  Right here, today in this text, is our promise that we will not be alone.  None of us has to do anything spectacular.  But in whatever way we do show up, our hearts do not need to be troubled.

Let us pray….  

It doesn't have a shape that I can name, it doesn't have any unifying features, there's no message to be had.  It's not art. The advantage of doing something you don't know how to do is that you don't let standards get in your way.  But it is a creative endeavor and sometimes that's enough.  The longer I look at this silly thing, in the privacy of my own mind, certain themes come up in my mind and I begin to glimpse my own message for myself.

Sometimes I never get anything out of it except some fun and that's ok too.

Afterwards I didn't feel dramatically different, just unstuck.  Less troubled.

I feel better knowing that the intensity presented in the Greek is more than I originally took away from the text than the word “trouble.”  I like knowing that Jesus doesn't look at horrible events in our lives and say “oh, don't worry about it.”  Jesus doesn't offer us a quiet little voice that says things will be okay.  Don't let your hearts be troubled, means that Jesus knows that evil, and death, have a lot of power.  And