May 18, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Easter
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
‘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.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘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.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you Gospel of John 14:1-7, NRSV
Today’s reading from John’s Gospel begins the section known as the Farewell Discourse. It is the part where Jesus tells his disciples everything they are going to need to know before he leaves them. It is the passage we read in this season of Easter when the disciples are called to rise to the occasion that God is to be made manifest in a whole new way. The disciples are being called to change their spiritual addresses, to move into a whole new neighborhood, just as the divine became incarnate and dwelled in theirs. For 13 chapters John’s Gospel, in the flesh of Jesus, God has been descending to humanity, and now, for the remaining eight chapters, it is humanity’s turn to complete the transaction by receiving the indwelling of God.
It’s not as easy as it sounds, receiving the indwelling of God. In fact often times it feels tantamount to the task of catching a hail Mary pass.
In the King James Bible, this passage is translated: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…” And this was a great comfort to me as a child. As a kid I thought, how great is this – no matter how different I am….no matter how poorly I seem to fit in this life, there is a mansion somewhere in God’s kingdom where I belong. I have always walked a bit on the margins of my existence. I have never quite fit in with the dominant crowd. I grew up in a Beaver Cleaver world where my brother and sister and I were the only children of divorced parents in our small Midwestern town in the early 1970’s. I survived the agony of an adolescence in which I was always more interested in bowling than boys….and let me tell you I was not that much of a bowler. And I was born into a family that was so politically and economically conservative, that my grandfather disinherited me for my work on the ethical investment consortium at Smith College which urged divestment of his beloved Fire and Brimstone…..or maybe it way Firestone stock….a company which was aiding and abetting apartheid in South Africa. So this assurance that God’s house had more than the narrow, straight laced, rigidly conservative dwelling place functioned as a sort of biblical comfort food for most of my life.
However, as I matured, I began to grow a bit uneasy with this comforting passage. I began to see it as a sort of good news and bad news proposition. Because on the one hand, it sounds like we are welcome whoever we are, whatever road we have traveled, wherever we find ourselves on matters of politics, or social location or even religion – there is ALWAYS room for us in the heart God – Do not let your hearts be troubled. In God’s house there is room for all of God’s children.
But on the other hand, just three short verses later, Jesus says that , ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ So I wanted to know, what happened to the many mansions? What happened to room for all of God’s children in God’s heart? Maybe the most inclusive piece of scripture in the entire Holy Bible is followed immediately by one of the most exclusive pieces of scripture.
And I began to think, hey, this is not an unconditional welcome into God’s heart and home; it seems instead a very conditional invitation….a very exclusive invitation issued to we who call ourselves Christian; to we who accept that Christ is the way and the truth and the life. It doesn’t welcome me whoever I am, it welcomes me only as a Christian. And all of sudden my comfort food began to spoil.
Because there I was, just thinking that maybe Christianity had not left me out of the mix because I was different….and then there I was, left out of the mix again because I was different, because I could not accept that God was exclusive. On the one hand I felt good about being accepted for myself. On the other hand I felt completely nauseated at the notion that God would abandon anyone for any reason; that God might choose me over someone else because I was a Christian. And so oddly enough, I was on the outs with the church…still. Not because of my brand of sexuality, but because of my brand of Christianity. Go figure. If God is inclusive, I thought, then God is inclusive……if God’s love is unconditional, then God’s love cannot be on the condition that I believe in God…..that’s just not unconditional. And so how was this clearly exclusive passage from John’s Gospel to be interpreted?
But, the thing about the Bible, as Barbara Brown Taylor is fond of saying, is that often times it does a better job interpreting us than we do of interpreting it. That is to say, the meaning is not in the text, but in the context, in our particular relationship with the text.
Marcus Borg tells the story of an interfaith worship service. And as a result of some poor planning, a Buddhist lector ended up reading this very passage from the Christian Gospel of John. And after he read it, there was an extended and awkward pause. The whole auditorium seemed to be holding its breath. But the Buddhist monk looked up, smiled, and said: “This scripture is absolutely true —Jesus is the way—and Jesus is the only way that one comes to know the divine.” And what the Buddhist meant by that, is, of course, that Jesus is the embodiment of the way….the only way….not that Jesus is the only one on the way, but that the way that Jesus walks is indeed, the only way. The Buddhist monk was not saying “believe in Jesus”. He was saying believe in the way that is Jesus.
I think this passage calls us to the radical welcome that is our calling as Christians….the radical way of Christ. And although it may sound pretty easy, to include everyone, it is not. It is hard, hard work. Sometimes it is easier to be exclusive than to be inclusive. Sometimes it is easier to think that we are the only ones going the right way than to include those who rail against our very existence. Sometimes it is easier to focus on our differences than on our common suffering. But as the great GK Chesterton once said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and therefore left untried.”
And so that second part in this morning’s Gospel reading, the part about only getting to God through the way of Christ can only work, in my estimation, if it is modified by the first part, the part about the many mansions. And that said, what a perfectly appropriate day it is for this piece of scripture. Because yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that allowed, for the first time in the history of the free world, equal marriage under the law. And it still sort of blows my mind that this grace is taken almost for granted by our kids. The oldest kid in our confirmation class was only 6 years old when this impossible dream dawned. When I was six years old, folks who admitted that they were…..bowlers, stood to lose their friends and families and livelihoods and very often, their very lives. And so I did not in a million years think I would witness this grace of God’s inclusive love in my lifetime, let alone celebrate its tenth anniversary in the youth of my middle age.
And, yesterday was also the 60th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Brown versus the Board of Education. May 17, 1954 was the day when schools could no longer legally remain segregated, it was thereafter ruled to be a violation of the equal protection clause under the 14th amendment. No more separate but equal in the mansion of our national system of education. A unanimous 9 to zero decision stated unequivocally that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
This decision was intended to include all Americans of all colors and socioeconomic locations in the fundamental resources that would deliver equal protection of access and rights to all citizens in this one nation under God. And that decision, say many scholars, was not really about color, it was and is about class; about assuring that the wealth of resources that determine success through education would be available to all, not just to those who could afford the price of a good neighborhood school. And so although in some ways we read this landmark Court case as a Civil Rights win for the African American community, but it is not really that conditional. It is a Civil Rights win for all citizens, intended to be an unconditional sharing of resources. And so, say those scholars, the way to dismantle racism is in part to make the resources to social success unconditionally available.
Like unconditional love. That is what God wants of us. That is what God offers us. At least that is what I was raised to believe.
And on one level that made me feel good. I was relieved to know that God loves us without regard for our race or creed or color or sexual orientation. I was relieved to know that those categories are human constructs, and do not have anything to do with the way God loves us. But on another level, the idea that God’s love is unconditional was and is sooooo…….. disappointing.
I do not want God to love me unconditionally. Unconditional love has the connotation of love offered without…any true understanding of who we are as individuals, without any intimacy at all. And what kind of love is that? If God is going to love us unconditionally, then we might as well be lumps of coal. And more importantly, if God’s love is unconditional, then God does not necessarily know the parts of us that need to be acknowledged if the love of them is to mean anything. I want God to love me knowing how…… different I am, how disappointing I might end up being, how fragile and flawed I feel. I do not want to be loved universally, I want to be loved particularly, especially; for myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for unconditional love. It’s one of Ben and Diva’s most compelling attributes. We love the unconditional love of our creature companions… although, as any kid will attest (mostly because kids are the only ones honest enough to attest) when our four legged companions seem to love someone else more unconditionally than they love us, our feelings are hurt. When Ben chooses to snuggle with Thalia rather than me…..sometimes, my feelings are hurt.
And that, I think, is because we do not want to be loved without conditions. We do not want to be just loved, we want to be loved for who we are. As Thicht Nhat Han says, what we want is to be understood….and loved just the same. Not loved without knowing. But loved fully; wrinkles and warts and weirdness and all. Loved for our brilliance and for our brokenness, loved for the parts that shine and for the parts that shame. Loved intentionally. We do not want love to be blind. We want love to be fully aware of who we are. We want love to know us inside and out, with all of our scrapes and scabs and moles and malaprops on the record; in full view. We want to be loved conditionally, as in, if we were anything other than exactly who we are, we would not be loved in the same way; this way that is our access to God.
This is the way; the way and the truth and life through which we come to God; God who has room for each and all in God’s many mansions, where we believe in God or not; God has room for us in God’s mansions; mansions that do not tolerate, but celebrate, our diversity and our particularity; God who loves us not blindly, but intentionally, in a very intentional way; a way that sees who we are, and appreciates the ways in which we do not fit in to any kingdom but God’s own. God intentionally makes room for us in these many dwelling places…..and if we seek God with the same intentionality…….maybe we need only be truly ourselves, authentically who we are, beloved and beloving creatures of a living God.
And we have it on fairly good authority that there is just no other way.
© May, 2014 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw