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Where Are We Going?

Date:5/9/21

Passage: John 14:1-3

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

A while back, I heard a pastor tell a story about the brilliant physicist, Albert Einstein. The story goes that Einstein was traveling on a train departing Princeton, New Jersey, when the conductor came down the aisle to punch the passengers’ tickets. Einstein paused, realizing that he couldn’t find his own ticket. He looked in his vest pocket, he looked in his pants pocket, he looked in his briefcase, but there was no ticket. The conductor was gracious; “Not to worry, Dr. Einstein, I know who you are, we all know who you are, and I’m sure you bought a ticket.”

As the conductor moved down the aisle, he looked back and noticed Einstein on his hands and knees, searching under his seat for the missing ticket. The conductor returned to Einstein; “Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are. You don’t need a ticket, I’m sure you bought one.” Einstein got up and said “Young man, I too know who I am; what I don’t know is where I am going.”

Jesus said, “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.”

This is my last Sunday with you. There is so much to say and so much left unsaid. There is so much to do and so much left undone. There is so much to feel and so much left unfelt. But that seems to be the nature of the fragileness of life, isn’t it? Things have felt precarious and shaky during the pandemic and we’ve had many moments of wondering where we are going, as individuals, a church, a city, and a nation. This uncertainty and doubt has weighed heavily on our hearts. Where are we going?

Which led me to think about this verse from the Gospel of John. And no, it’s not a lectionary text for today. This is one of those rare moments when I have chosen to break from the lectionary and the preordained scripture lessons of the liturgical year. I guess I’ll do it on my last Sunday. You see, usually this Gospel of John scripture gets read during Ascension Sunday every three years. However, I bet you know this verse mostly from funeral services. We often read this assurance from Jesus as a word of comfort for those who are mourning, to give hope that our faith in Jesus has paved a way for us to abide with God.

But you know, this scripture passage moved through my mind as I thought about this final sermon with you. It seemed appropriate today to hear these reassuring words as my family and I move on to another adventure, as this church charts the path ahead, and as we prepare, as a people of faith, for Jesus’ ascension next week. Jesus went before us in so many ways, in ministry, in death, and in resurrected life. Jesus knew where he was going even when the disciples didn’t quite understand, even as his closest followers felt lost on the journey.

Before I settled on “Where Are We Going?” as the title for this sermon, I pondered using “Getting Lost” as the title instead. As many of you know I love to hike. It’s scientifically proven that being in the woods, activating our bodies, and finding time to tune out the constant noise and information of the world is healthy for our spirits and emotional wellbeing. Often, I jump on a trail, not knowing where it ends, and simply walk. I know the path will lead me where I need to go. I trust the trail.

Pre-pandemic, hiking was a weekly and even multiple times a week occurrence in our household. Amanda co-led a homeschool hiking group, which means our girls are pretty knowledgeable and experienced hikers. Well, on a cold January hike, the girls miscalculated and made an error. They chose to separate themselves with a few friends and take what they thought would be a short-cut back to the trailhead. It wasn’t a short-cut. In fact, the route they veered onto took them deeper into the nature preserve. Annaleigh, Bea, and their two friends were lost. And to make matters worse, Bea tripped on a root and twisted her ankle. Amanda eventually noticed they had departed from the trail, organized a search, and ultimately found them. The four girls were confused and scared and thankful to be rescued.

Because, you see, getting lost is no fun. We long to be in the familiar. We long to be close to home. We long for the recognizable and the known. And when the terrain becomes hostile and mysterious, we lose hope, we get scared. And it is in those times that we need to hear the words of the Word of Life, of the divine, say to us, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

In our lives and circumstances, we often get lost and we don’t know the way forward. I bet many of us have felt lost a lot recently… lost in the loneliness, the worry, the financial stress, the bodily decline, or the physical pain. And still others of us have been lost in the mundaneness of a daily living, hoping that something will enliven us and spark the joy of adventure once again.

Rev. Sam Gutierrez spoke about getting lost. He said, “Sometimes we get lost because of a sudden circumstance beyond our control. It’s as if we get pushed into a wilderness. Sometimes we make a decision to go one way instead of another at a fork in the road. But sometimes we get lost in a more subtle way. Rather than with a sudden circumstance or a bad decision, we get lost by putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. We get lost in routine and stop paying attention to the important and the essential. Getting lost in this way is like a slow drift from the shore: we don’t notice right away, but after a while we look around and feel unsure of where we are and how we got there.”

Many of us feel lost, don’t we? But, I wonder, if sometimes being lost is ok. For, the idea of being lost is that we are eventually found someplace. We know there is a space, a home where we feel safe and secure. We have a home base from where we can wander out into the unknown, but then have a place to come back to. And I’m sure that the disciples felt lost without Jesus. He was their point of reference, their foundation, their leader. What were they going to do without him? They needed him nearby in order to become a better community, a better people, a better group of followers.

But, Jesus had to leave. This fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John begins what’s called the Johannine Farewell Discourse. Chapters fourteen through sixteen are the passages where Jesus prepared the disciples for his departure and tried to impart in them a message of comfort and peace. It was time for Jesus to go. Yet, Jesus didn’t return to God perfected from his journey. No, God experienced our living and our loving and, yes, even our getting lost. One commentator said, “Ascension Sunday is about Jesus returning to sit on the throne as the exalted king. He came down, took on human flesh, lived, died and rose again. He ends up where he started: on the throne. But now he bears the marks of his human journey with him; now he is a wounded king. He goes to get our rooms ready to welcome his wounded children, finding their place of belonging in the house of God.”

Do we feel like wounded and lost children most of the time? We get disoriented. We get confused. We get lost and we get lonely. We get wounded. We often and desperately need a center to come back to. And the beautiful thing about the resurrected and ascended Christ is that God understands. God has traveled the road before us. God knows who we are and God has led the way. Just like we’ve heard these words in this fourteenth chapter of John at the edge of a graveside time and time again, Jesus reassures his disciples, and reassures us, that death is not the end but the beginning of the journey, of the way, “whose destination is the room he is making for them [and us] in God.”

And yet, just like the disciples, our hearts are frequently troubled. Because the way before us seems difficult, uncharted, unknown. We are hiking the trail of life, getting lost along the way. Often times we don’t know what is coming around the bend, hiding behind the trees, or what the weather will do. But, that is part of the journey, that is part of trusting in God and following Jesus. In fact, going hiking is not about the destination, it’s about the time spent finding the love of God in creation, in the traveling. And that traveling journey together isn’t over. You and I will continue to be connected throughout our lives as we show the love of God and proclaim the message of Christ to the world, one step and one adventure at a time.

One preacher said it like this: “And that is the good news of Easter and being a resurrection people, that we know where we are going. We have been told by the Savior that his life and death has promised us life eternal. And Low Sundays don’t change that promise. And unemployment doesn’t change that promise. Neither does divorce, or bankruptcy, or cancer, or depression, or felony, or failure. Through elation and deflation and every emotion in between, this truth remains; we know whose we are and we know where we are going, because the Son of God has promised. And this, my friends, is faith.”

Faith. Jesus’s disciples were told to have faith. A bunch of fearful and anxious disciples were huddled together, worried and wondering what would happen to them. “Oh Jesus, what will become of us? Where do we go from here?” And Jesus looked at them, reassured them that their hearts would not be troubled, and promised one thing, one powerful and wonderful thing…. “Those of you who believe in me will do even greater work than I have done.”

So, I’m not sure what the future looks like as we set off down the path. Where are we going? Where does the trail lead? Where will we be when we make it home? I don’t know. But I do know we’ve had fun along the way. I do know you, as Royal Lane, and we, as faithful people, will continue to point out love and acceptance and justice as we walk the journey. And sure, we might take a fork in the road or feel lost and insecure at times. But, our hearts won’t be troubled because we know who we are, resurrected people providing hope and hospitality and welcome to all God’s people. We are disciples who will do even greater work than Jesus did. You and I, we are empowered and will go on to do great things.

“Not to worry, Royal Lane Baptist Church, I know who you are, we all know who you are, and I’m sure you bought a ticket.” So, let not your hearts be troubled.

Amen.