Finding Our Way Through the Worst
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
May 10, 2020 Fifth Sunday of Easter,
Psalm 84; John 14:1-14
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here.]
We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a climate crisis and mass extinction of species that could lead to the end of humanity, and this week we learned that Morano Gelato in Hanover is going out of business. How much more bad news can we take?
The worldwide lectionary delivers us just the scripture passage we need, words that are frequently read as the ultimate comfort at funerals, from the 14th Chapter of the Gospel of John (1-14).
Jesus began his farewell discourse, when his disciples were about to face the worst, by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. 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 to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
The passage is read at funerals because people believe that Jesus is talking about dying and going to heaven. What could be more comforting than believing that he will come again when we die and carry us in his loving arms to paradise?
But Thomas said to him, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
The disciples are still confused so Jesus explains that God’s words are what he speaks and God’s works are what he does. He says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” Then he says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
Suddenly we realize that Jesus is not talking about death, he is talking about life. “I am the way” means the sacred way to live. Jesus is the way because he is one with the creator of the universe, and because he is one with the universe itself. No one can come to God except through Jesus because Jesus is one with all paths that lead to God. Anyone who knows Jesus knows God because Jesus had attained oneness with God.
If that is too hard to believe, Jesus said, then look at his words and works. Does the Spirit of the universe flow through them? Do they reflect the most mature human wisdom and perspective? Do they follow the natural way of love and life and light?
If we believe and set out to follow that way, then Jesus says he and God will be in us, and we will dwell in them, and we will do even greater works than he did.
This is the ultimate comfort, and it is exactly the comfort we need right now. Sure, it would be great to know that as we drive all life on earth to extinction we have a free pass into paradise with Jesus, but I would far rather know that we have a chance to save our lives on this beautiful earth and create a way of living that will give our children and their children’s children’s children a chance of living and loving and doing all the wonderful things humans can do for thousands of generations to come.
Jesus says “I am the way,” and I believe him. I believe that he and his words and works are the path we need to take. I believe the sacred way of love and compassion that all spiritual traditions teach is the only path that can lead us to a sustainable, just, peaceful life of oneness on earth.
But how can we find that way through this worst of times?
The 46th Psalm says,
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
Be still and know that I am God!”
We can find the way by looking for the path of nonviolence, of loving our neighbor as our self, of losing our life to gain life, of laying down our lives for others, as Jesus taught, but to find our own unique steps along the way in each new situation we need to be still and know God and hear the guidance of the Spirit within us.
Mahatma Gandhi looked at the teachings and life of Jesus and decided to take them as his Way. It led him to do the kinds of works Jesus did and even greater, establishing hospitals and a grassroots economy that lifted millions out of poverty and into dignity. Gandhi liberated the oppressed and nonviolently overcame the mightiest empire the world had ever seen.
Yet Gandhi said “My greatest weapon is wordless prayer,” a contemplative prayer that emptied himself of self-concern and opened him to be still and hear what God was saying. It led him to the sacred way through the worst of times.
That same way will lead us through this worst of worst times if are still and know God, if we learn to find and follow the sacred way. So what do we need to do?
Here are five things.
The first is to believe that a sacred way exists, and this is not easy.
The nature of the worst of times is that they make it almost impossible to believe in a path through the wilderness to the Promised Land. It helps if we can overcome our unbelief just enough to pray for the ability to believe. Wanting to believe enables us to trust in others who do believe, who can hold our hand as we walk the path until the day comes when we see it for ourselves.
Believe in it, and second, look for it. Sooner or later we may stumble onto a way through our suffering by pure grace, but we can find the path sooner and less painfully if we search for it. Then signs and angels will appear and show us the next right step, found in books or music, strangers or our spiritual communities. The way is not only described in our spiritual tradition, it is in our every cell. It will make itself known.
Believe in it, look for it, and third, return to it, because you will lose it again and again. Everyone knows this who tries Centering Prayer or meditation. The goal is to enter into a silence of opening and surrendering all we are to God. We sit down and start to do it and gently drop beyond all thought into that lovely silent dwelling place and then bang, a new thought comes along and we are right back where you started. Centering prayer is a process of returning over and over to the way.
Each time we stray from the sacred way is an opportunity to return again, believing in it, looking for it, and then taking the step that comes to us as the next right thing. Each time we do that we move a little farther along the way.
So the fourth thing is to practice—practice believing, looking and returning to the way as constantly as you can. The greater the need for the sacred way, the more we need to practice.
Today we face the highest stakes there can be.
We need to practice, practice, practice.
We need to practice the works Jesus did, practice healing, teaching, working for justice and peace, liberating the oppressed, lifting the poor, using whatever gifts we have to do whatever part of the work we love to do.
We need to practice praying as Jesus did, listening to the Spirit in the depths of our heart, mastering the practices of contemplative prayer or any spiritual path that follows the sacred way. We practice by reading and learning and being part of a spiritual community where people are seeking the way together, and by taking care of our physical, emotional and psychological needs, because finding the way through the worst can be hampered if any one of these is neglected.
Believe in it, look for it, return to it, practice it, and finally have patience with it. All it takes is a nanosecond for grace to show us the way through the worst, but challenges can keep us from finding it. It takes patience to endure our struggles.
May you have the patience that comes through knowing that suffering is the doorway to the path, not an obstacle to it. May you have the patience of knowing that others have found a way through the worst, and they understand how hard it is, and they are walking with you. We can be thankful for this congregation full of people who are seeking the way with us through this time. Most of all we can be thankful that the same Spirit that guided Jesus and Gandhi and all the saints and all who have found the way through the worst from the dawn of time, that Spirit is in us and with us now, and with it we cannot fail.
Let us pray in silence, being still and knowing God and waiting patiently for the next step on the way to become clear…