Yesterday we held the memorial service for my stepmother. My brothers did the remembrances; she asked me to give the message. These are the two key texts and my remarks. I wrote about her in the post entitled “Gloria” and at “Watching for the Morning” in a post: “Before the mystery of life”.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
“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. 4 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.” (John 14:1-6)
Gloria was my stepmother. She has been since I was five. My brother, Ken, and I would spend summers with Dad and Gloria, and I have memories from all those places where they lived – beginning in Manhattan Beach in those days when they still passed out gum on the DC-6 to help your ears adjust to the changing altitude as you took off and as you descended to land.
I wish I could explain what Gloria has meant to me. I am not sure I can say very much and still keep my composure. But I will say this, that in all the craziness of my childhood and throughout my adult life, she has been a persistent presence of kindness. That is the reason I suggested the passage from Colossians for our second reading: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
Gloria said something that last day that sounded like she didn’t want preaching at her service. But here I am. (She also asked me to do the service.) I think she meant she wanted the message to be simple. I can get carried away with the rich wonders of the scriptures and the profound depths of the Christian tradition. I believe passionately that there is a powerful message here about fundamental truths of existence and the nature of our true humanity. And I believe that all the traditional language of Christian faith can be explained in a way that makes sense in the modern world. But Gloria wasn’t interested in all of that; she was just trying to live “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” I think she wanted to keep this simple. So let me try.
The passage we read from John’s Gospel is one that Gloria had picked. It began: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” They are words that Jesus speaks to his followers in the night in which he will be arrested. Jesus can see what’s coming. It is Thursday night after what we now call the “Last Supper.” When he is finished speaking they will go to the Garden of Gethsemane, the olive grove where he and his followers were staying, and a mob will come in the darkness to seize him. The next morning, Friday, will bring the cross.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
When we hear the word “believe” we tend to think about ideas, but Jesus isn’t talking about concepts or doctrines. He is saying, “Stay with me.” “Trust me.” “Don’t lose faith and go home.” “Sorrow is coming, but don’t let go of your allegiance to me and to God.”
And then Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” It seems like an odd thing to say if you take it literally. But the things Jesus says in John’s gospel are always about something more profound than their literal meaning. He offers the woman at the well ‘living water’ – but he doesn’t mean the ordinary sense of that word as ‘running water’, he is offering her a life-giving water. When he restores the sight of a blind man, it is about far more than fixing his eyes; it is about removing the darkness within and granting him light to see the work of God. When Jesus talks about being born anew, Nicodemus gets stuck on the literal question how to get back into the womb and come forth a second time, when Jesus is talking about being born from above, born of the Spirit of God.
So we are not supposed to imagine here that Jesus is speaking of a literal house. Jesus is using a metaphor: God is like a householder with a grand estate large enough to provide for everyone. And the word for ‘dwelling places’ is the word that Jesus has used throughout John’s Gospel to talk about abiding in God and God abiding in us.
There is room in the heart of God for us all. For the thickheaded like Nicodemus, for the unseeing like the blind man, for the grieving like the disciples. There is room in the heart of God for us all.
And when Jesus says that he is “the way, the truth and the life,” he is not saying that Christianity is the one true religion, he is saying that the path into the heart of God is revealed in his life and teaching, in his words and deeds.
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” These aren’t fighting words – us against them. These are words with open arms. Come with me into the heart of the Father. Follow me into the embrace of God. Trust me. Stay with me. There is a life in God beyond all imagining. There is an Easter that awaits us.
And so here we are, not able to imagine this life beyond imagining, but hearing the invitation to trust him, to walk with him into the mystery.
To trust God that the water of our tears can be turned to the finest of wines. To trust God that in Christ is a bread that gives life to the world. To trust God that there is room in the heart of God for us all.
The doubting, the unbelieving, the hard of heart – there is room in the heart of God for us all. The grieving, the uncomprehending, the struggling – there is room in the heart of God for us all. The fearful, the hopeful, the blissfully ignorant – there is room in the heart of God for us all. The poor in Spirit, the pure in heart – there is room in the heart of God for us all. For you and me and Gloria – there is room in the heart of God for us all.
There is much more to be said about Christian faith. But not today. Today is just the simple reminder that there is room in the heart of God for us all. Today there is the voice of Jesus offering words of assurance: “Stay with me,” “Trust me.” Today there is the promise of a life that cannot be contained by the grave. Today there is the promise of an eternal kindness.