“Do not let your heart be troubled.”
When I was thinking about the passage from the gospel of John that Cynthia just read for us, it occurred to me that this conversation between Jesus and his disciples sounds a lot like a conversation that might happen in a family.
Young folks have plenty to worry about. Maybe someone was mean to him in school, or maybe he is worried that he might fail the driving test. Maybe her boyfriend broke up with her, or someone wrote a mean comment on social media. The black teen wonders if he dares to drive his car, because he is afraid of being pulled over. The third grader, who has heard about mass shootings, is terrified by the prospect of school starting up again in September.
These are very real concerns. And yet, it is tempting, as a parent, to say something like:
“Don’t worry. It’ll be ok.”
That is certainly the easiest response.
But is that the right response?
I’m reminded of that company that sells T-shirts and hats, all of which show cute drawings of people doing fun things like fishing and biking and playing frisbee. You know line of clothes that I’m talking about, right?. Beneath each endearing illustration of people being happy, is a caption that proclaims:
“Life is Good.”
The company has actually trademarked the phrase: “Life is Good.”
Do you suppose they really believe it?
Have the folks who came up with this line of clothing never had anything bad happen to them? Have they never had a hang-nail, or ran out of gas on a backroad? Have they not heard about climate change? Failing grades? Tick-borne illnesses?
Obviously, they know about these things. They live in the world just like you and me. The company doesn’t actively deny the occurrence of floods and earthquakes, missiles and shark attacks. They are just expressing a sentiment that is, in and of itself, true enough. The sentiment is real! Life is good!
Everytime I see one of those t-shirts, I have the urge to find the nearest sharpee, and add the word “sometimes.” Call me a cynic, but the unqualified declaration that life is good feels irresponsible to me – it is the kind of marketing that only works in a culture of luxury and privilege – or rather a culture that desperately aspires to luxury and privilege.
People of faith – Christians, in particular – are often criticized for wearing rose colored glasses. Atheists and armchair philosophers like to dismiss religion as a collective form of wishful thinking. They fault us for insisting that God is always there for us – even when the desperate realities of our lives seem to suggest otherwise. Again, it’s like being in a family. One sibling will find good reasons to point out that Dad is always there when you need him – while another will offer equally convincing evidence to point out that he is utterly absent.
In this morning’s passage, Jesus is making the case for the-Good-Dad version of God. A God – and a messiah – that we can count on.
“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?
I admit to you, today, that for a good chunk of my life – almost four decades – I wanted nothing to do with the view of the world that Jesus expresses here. I was solidly among the crew of folks who look down their noses at Christians who search their lives for evidence of a compassionate God. For this reason, I have no difficulty falling into the familiar arguments. It’s all very well for Jesus to say “Do not let your heart be troubled.” He didn’t have to contend with the historical fact of the holocaust.
He knew nothing about the horror of the middle passage
or the hell on earth that was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Jesus didn’t know about Sandy Hook.
In my younger days, I was content to go along with the people – smart people – who used the tragic record of human history to reach the cynical conclusion that God does not exist, the universe is nothing more or less than the arbitrary shifting of molecules, and that religion is the wistful, often beautiful, but ultimately empty tradition that people use to make themselves feel better about their painful lives.
After all the devastation of the twentieth century, it was hard to hear Christ’s message: “Do not let your heart be troubled.”
Our world is troubling.
There can be no doubt about that!
Is the only proper response to a troubling world to be troubled?
It is certainly one legitimate response, but it’s certainly not the only one.
When I think carefully about this, it occurs to me that being troubled is a necessary first step in responding to the tragic realities of our world. If we get stuck there, though – if we don’t get past being troubled, then it’s unlikely that we will ever change anything. To make a difference – to create change – we must be able to move beyond the stark fact of pain.
Part of what makes us human is this truth– that our response to suffering is more than just an acknowledgment of the reality of suffering. We rebel against the reality of suffering, by insisting that there must be more to it than this.
Yes, there is suffering… but there is also beauty.
Yes, there is pain, but there is also love.
Yes, there is a slap, but there is also a kiss.
Yes, there is a gun, but there is also a flower.
Yes, there is a drought, but there is also rain, breaking through in the late afternoon.
It is crucially important that we, as people of faith, have our eyes open to the realities of human suffering. Ostrich religion – the kind of religion that only works if you stick your head in the sand – is irresponsible and fake. When I dedicated myself to being Christian, it was in part because I saw that Christ, himself, had a heightened awareness of human suffering, and that to follow him is to respond to God’s call to confront the injustices that cause that suffering.
There are many examples, in the gospels, of moments when Jesus teaches the singular importance of being compassionate to those who are in pain. Giving food to the hungry. Offering water to the thirsty. Offering hospitality to the stranger. Visiting the prisoner. These are the actions that, Jesus tells us, will ensure our salvation.
He also practices what he preaches – walking from town to town around Galilee, He heals lepers, drives away demons, and restores sight to the blind.
In today’s passage, though, Jesus is not so much insisting that his disciples act with compassion. In this passage, he actively offers them his own prophetic style of compassionate attention.
He comforts them.
“Do not let your heart be troubled.”
When Jesus acts like God he is comforting people – he is a healer.
To be a healer is to acknowledge the pain of the world, and respond to it.
To comfort someone, it is no good to simply say: that problem you are having is not a problem.
To comfort someone is to acknowledge the reality of their pain, and help them (if possible) to move beyond the fact of the pain – to something else – beauty, wonder, solace, love.
The great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, said it well:
It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it’s a crutch. he said. What makes you think you don’t limp?
Yes, we limp!
As we walk through life we carry with us the reality of pain, the aftermath of trauma. But our faith does not let us remain in the fact of pain. Our faith – our faith that there is a divine response to that pain – allows us to transform that pain into meaning.
With every breath we transform pain into meaning… and this is how we become most fully human…
and closest to God.
Yes there is sin, but there is also grace…
“Do not let your heart be troubled.”