May 22, 2011
William G. Carter
“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.
Believe me when I say it’s good to see you today. All this talk of the end of the world was quietly working on me. I was afraid that all the true believers would evaporate into the sky, and I would be left behind. I imagined that I might have to come into the sanctuary and talk to myself.
That was before Harold Camping, that 89-year-old radio preacher I had never heard of, turned out to be a false prophet. He had been preaching it for years. Sometime around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, the trumpet would sound. I wasn’t sure if that was 6:00 Eastern Standard Time, 6:00 California Time, or if the end of the world would come one time zone after another, an hour at a time. Nobody from Great Britain was taken up into heaven, but then I didn’t expect they would. That’s Great Britain, after all.
I have to admit I worried for a bit, if only for a little bit. I postponed finishing my sermon until after 6:00. Why not wait and see if it’s necessary? This guy, Harold Camping, has been gluing together Bible verses for year. He has been treating the scripture as a puzzle book, poking around for three verses from the book of Daniel, cutting half a verse out of First Thessalonians, snatching up two verses from Matthew 24, and cooking them together in one of the burning cauldrons from the book of Revelation.
He’s not alone. Talking about the End Times is big business. It promotes millions of dollars sold in books, lectures, podcasts, and DVD’s. Even though Jesus said rather clearly, “No one knows the day or hour, not even me (Matthew 24:36),” somebody always pops up, claiming to know even more than Jesus. There have been devised elaborate schemes and charts to map out each possible sign of the end. These are taught by glistening TV preachers who have wives whose hair defies gravity. Some of them have written novels about the coming of Christ and the end of the world, claiming that this is how everything will end. And some of those books have been turned into movies.
One of them almost ruined my love life. As a ninth grader, I mustered up the courage to ask a pretty girl to the movies. Her name was Suzanne. Couldn’t take my eyes off her! She came from a very religious family, so I thought it best if we went to see a religious film. As God ordained it, such a film was playing in our small town. It was called, “The Late Great Planet Earth: The Movie.” My dad drove us in the paneled station wagon, and we were allowed to sit in the back seat. It was a big deal. I asked her to the movie and she said yes.
The theater went dark. I began thinking teenage thoughts. Suddenly strange goings-one took place on scene. There were earthquakes, volcano explosions, and tidal waves. A man who stood shaving at the bathroom sink disappeared, leaving behind an electric razor flopping around on the floor. A housewife driving her children to school was no longer at the wheel, nor were her children strapped in the car – all of them were gone, as the car careened out of control. This, we were told, was the Rapture: it was the great escape hatch for Christians. They would be snatched away into heaven, before God started blasting away to destroy the earth.
We sat in the dark theater. Suddenly I didn’t think it would be a good idea to put my arm around my date. I had been working on the chess moves in my brain, but the film froze me in my tracks. In fact, I didn’t hold her hand. I didn’t kiss her goodnight. We maintained a respectful distance because of that movie. It still hurts to think about it.
It was sometime later that I learned the whole thing was an invention. The word “rapture” is not mentioned in the Bible. It never found its way into a sermon by the apostles. It was never written about for the first 1800 years of Christian faith and history. And then, in 1830, a fifteen-year-old Scottish lass named Margaret McDonald had a vision. Jesus would come again – not once, but twice. The first time, he would take his true believers away. There would be seven years of hell on earth, and then Jesus would come again to say, “Enough of this!”
Well, this vision gave a few preachers something to talk about. Not content with the Sermon on the Mount, not content with the parables of Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan, not content with the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit – they began to chart out the future. Of course, they sold the charts, they taught the charts. They broadcast the word that Christians didn’t have to get involved in the world, for they would be fished out of all trouble. Unlike the first 1830 years of the Christian faith, the past 170 years have had one strident preacher after another declare the clock was ticking down.
There were reports this week of people this week, cashing in their savings, quitting their jobs, assembling on mountain tops and California beaches. And I do have to say, even with all my schooling and skepticism, I confess to a few moments of anxiety. What if that wacky guy was right and I was wrong? I mean, he’s proven now twice as a false prophet, but perhaps he has some top secret knowledge that the rest of us don’t have. He didn’t show up at work today. He isn’t answering his phone. Makes you wonder . . .
I bring this up, not simply because it is a religious matter on a lot of people’s minds. Certainly it is that. These apocalyptic predictions have made the news unlike any in recent memory. Kids are buzzing about it on Facebook, cynics celebrated in watering holes last night with post-Rapture dances, and many folks wonder what all the buzz is about. Christian faith has always declared that the world as we know it will pass away. It will come to an end somehow and God will rule in a new and obvious way. That’s why we celebrate the season of Advent every December. We watch for God’s final coming. And we work while we wait.
Maybe you heard how Martin Luther replied to a student, when asked what he would do if he learned the world would end the next day. He smiled and quipped, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
But I bring this up because it is also a theme in today’s scripture text. What does Jesus say as he prepares to depart through death and resurrection? “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.” He goes away – then he will come again and take us. Just that much is enough to get us wondering if the whole business of a Rapture is true.
Those of you over fifty will remember how the King James Bible translated that promise: “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” It must be a really big house: think of all those mansions! Who wouldn’t want to live in a mansion? Imagine a gold-brick patio, a heated swimming pool, platinum plumbing, and a huge hot tub at precisely the right temperature! And that’s only in each bedroom . . .
The word “mansion” has fueled all kinds of imaginative hopes. Heaven must be a lot more beautiful than here. Heaven must be so far above all the travails and troubles of earth. Wouldn’t it be great to be lifted up into the mansion from all of this?
Just one small thing: the King James Bible didn’t translate that correctly. “Mone” is the Greek word, and Jesus has used it many times in the Gospel of John. It is the word for a “dwelling place.” Nothing pretentious about it. It is the place where you stay.
They said to Jesus in chapter one, “Where are you staying?” That’s the word. Or there’s that line I like to quote from chapter 15 whenever we have communion. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches; stay with me as I will stay with you.” That’s the word. Sometimes it’s translated “abide,” as in “abide with me.”
This is a relationship word: we stay with the Risen Christ, and he stays in us. There is no heavenly condo where we take an upward elevator out of our worldly difficulties. No, we stay with Christ – the Crucified Christ, the Risen Christ – and he stays with us. Sorry to break the news, but there is no escape hatch from the world. But there is a relationship that abides: as Jesus departs from his disciples through his death and resurrection, he returns to live within them. Where they are, he is. Where he stays, there they are also.
Frankly, I am sad that so much Christian preaching sounds like fear-mongering. It’s as if the approach is to say, “Let’s scare people into the arms of God.” And they describe an angry, vengeful God who keeps track of every sin, who hovers over every impure thought, a God who is just as narrow-minded as they are. Ever notice that? Well, the hell with that, I say. God is holy, it is true; but God’s holiness is complete love. God’s character is complete justice.
Did we hear how Jesus comforts his closest friends? He says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” Stop letting your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. This is the way, the truth, and the life.
The way, the truth, and the life is not to be afraid. It is to trust. It is to trust that God comes to us in truth, exposing who we are and what we do, and when God sees us, God comes in grace – to receive us, to forgive us, to scrub our feet and purify our hearts. God does not blast away through earthquake, storm, or fire. God comes to give us confidence that earthquake, storm, and fire do not own us. They don’t make us cower in fear.
The God of the Gospels does not pin our arms behind us, shove us face-down in the mud, and force a confession out of us. We don’t have a God who tells us how persistently awful we are. No, we have a God who sneaks in unannounced, a God who is rejected for coming in overwhelming kindness. We have a God who does not come to condemn the world but save it, a God who love the world enough to send the Son into the world.
I realize that’s not good enough for some people. They want a hateful God who punishes people unlike themselves. They want to terrify one another and frighten everybody else. And if that’s what they want, they can have the nightmares. I think we can prefer a God like Jesus, a God who judges people like sheep and goats based on how they respond to human need. We can have a God who says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
Our God also says in the voice of Jesus, “I am the Way.” Not “I am the Way Out,” but “I am the Way.” Christian faith just doesn’t make any sense unless it can be lived. Religion is more than a list of ideas. It is a life full of practices. We stay with Jesus by living out our life as if he is with us. We take these people who are around us, and we live out forgiveness and generosity with them. They aren’t imaginary people or cardboard figures. They have names and habits and feelings and histories, and we learn to love them where they are.
We live it out here and now, not somewhere else and tomorrow. Ever notice: some people are never content where they are, so they keep moving in the vain hope that the next stop will be the better place. “Maybe the next house, or the next spouse, or the next job will make me happy?” They pack their bags and go hustling off somewhere better. When they open their bags, they discover that they packed themselves. All the time overlooking that Jesus the Christ wants to come to them, and fill them with his peace, and to open their eyes and hearts to where they are. And this never happens quickly. Contentment is built through hard work over decades.
But we have to live out the Christian way, the way of Christ. If Jesus gets into us, we start noticing the things that he notices. We begin to care about the things that he cares about. If somebody sits off alone, dwelling in shadows, we go to them as bearers of light. If we meet someone hungry, and food alone will not satisfy, we stay with them long enough to discover and provide what they truly need. If we encounter a prisoner, someone held captive by forces they can’t even see, or restricted by the absence of possibilities, we visit them where they are, and we stay until God opens the window previously unknown. This is the way of Jesus. And it must be lived in specific ways: a cup of cold water, a warm meal, a friendly conversation, a listening ear, a word of mercy, a song of joy, a soul full of prayer, an untroubled heart.
Dorothy Day, the Catholic worker fed the hungry and spent time with those in difficulty. She loved to quote a line from St. Catherine: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because He had said ‘I am the way.’”
(c) William G. Carter
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