Readings: Psalm 31:1-5, John 14:1-7, Divine Providence #60 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Addition one year later: I preached this sermon for Mother’s Day one year ago, and I thought it would be interesting to see how we hear it a year later. You’ll notice that I start out with grief and segue into birth. Last year, we were very much in the grieving phase. Now, we are perhaps more in the birthing phase. But the important point is that grief and birth connected, that when we accept the fullness of our experience of grief then it can lead to birthing new things. And of course, no matter the phase we feel ourselves in now, we will be processing, on many levels, the experiences of this year for a long time to come. It is reasonable and expected to enter into this cycle again and again.
Jesus said in our text today: do not let your hearts be troubled. This might be one of those times when I really feel like questioning the text. Because there is a lot in the world to trouble us. Even before the pandemic, there was plenty to be troubled about. Somehow it just doesn’t sit right to have Jesus to be telling me not to “let” my heart be troubled, as if being faithful meant somehow being detached from all the injustice, all the loss, all the inequity, all the grief in the world.
Whenever I am challenged by something that I read in the bible, I find it helpful to look a little deeper, to see if the context helps to ground what is being expressed. First, I think it is helpful to see that right before Jesus says do not let your heart be troubled, he predicts that Peter will disown him three times. In fact, in the previous chapter, Jesus washes his disciples feet, predicts his betrayal by Judas (with Judas right in front of him), commands the disciples to love one another, and then tells Peter he will disown him three times. And then immediately Jesus says: Do not let your heart be troubled.
On the face of it, it seems even more ridiculous. How could the disciples not be troubled by the crazy rollercoaster ride that is happening to them? But I think if we look deeper we can see that Jesus is actually anticipating the fullness of their experience, anticipating their grief and their uncertainty and helping them to see their way through it.
I don’t think Jesus is saying that to be faithful means not feeling sad. I don’t think he is saying to be unmoved, or not to grieve for the brokenness we see in the world. He is saying that in all of it, we do not need to feel internally agitated, unmoored, desperate, because God is with us. The word in the text that is translated as “troubled” is the greek word tarasso, and it indicates agitation, being stirred-up, literally movement to and fro.
Which sounds to me like a specific state that is more like anxiety or even defensiveness, a state that prevents us from being present to what is actually happening to us. And I think the antidote to that state is not detachment or escape or rising above our life, but rather recognizing what is expressed in Psalm 31. With God as our refuge, and rock, we can be grounded enough to squarely face whatever is happening. We can have the courage and fortitude to feel it all in fullness. We don’t have to retreat into denial, or dismissal, or numbness, or conspiracy theories. We won’t need simple answers to complex problems just to make ourselves feel better. With God as our rock we can see the world as it truly is, feel everything we are given to feel, and not be afraid of what it might mean.
For the disciples, grief was a reasonable reaction to seeing their friend and mentor die so terribly. Grief was a reasonable reaction to their own failures. Grief is a reasonable reaction to what we have experienced this past year. We have witnessed the death of the vulnerable (both due to the pandemic and white supremacy). We have witnessed overwhelm and exhaustion on the part of our doctors and nurses. We have seen ordinary people, our friends and neighbors lose their livelihoods. And as much as we have seen people come together, we are also seeing divisions widen. There is so much to grieve.
And I know that I have preached a lot about grief this past year. Well, grief isn’t a one and done experience. It comes in waves. It goes out and comes in like the tide. So, as we experience this collective trauma, it is reasonable that our feelings may come and go in a similar way. And one reason I want to return to the topic of grief today, on mother’s day, is because of what I see as the relationship between grief and the mothering impulse.
There are lots of things that we think of when we think of mothering. One thing that seems to me to be inherent to the mothering impulse is to see the suffering of another and to wish to ameliorate that pain somehow, to share the burden of the pain so that it might be lessened for another, being willing to sacrifice something of the self so that another might thrive.
And to be clear, I’m not trying to say that only mothers can engage in the mothering impulse. I’m talking more broadly about something that is very human, something that all people can participate in. Being a mother in a family certainly gives someone lots of opportunities to engage with and to practice and express the mothering impulse, but I wouldn’t call it exclusive to that relationship only. We can see it in lots of places.
Jesus, for example, gives us a powerful example of the mothering impulse. Jesus’ very birth was demonstrative of God’s mothering impulse, wherein God saw the suffering of humanity and reached out. Jesus continued to embody the mothering impulse by ministering to those unseen and suffering, and then finally sacrificing himself so that we might see and understand the ways in which our selfish choices are poisoning our own hearts, indeed, on the very cross forgiving us, enfolding and holding the grief and the blindness of the world, taking it upon himself.
In a very real way, when *we* are feeling the enormous grief that has accompanied this pandemic, and all of its effects, when we truly feel it, we are each of us mothering the world in our small way. Each of us acting in partnership with the mothering impulse of God, a God who feels the grief of our world in every moment.
But this mothering impulse is not passive. It does not exist solely to be martyred, to vacuum up the world’s grief and make it go away, to make us feel more comfortable. The mothering impulse also insists upon the birthing that is to come. For, as much as I have been preaching about grief these last two months, I have also been preaching about newness.
A pregnant women not only endures painful contractions but uses them to bring about birth. One of the most useful pieces of advice that I received from my midwife when giving birth to my own children was to enter into the pain of the contractions and to flow with them, rather than to resist them. To accept them as something that could give me the power, not just to simply endure the process, but to be the one who actively brought new life into the world.
I am sure that the disciples wished that Jesus would have resisted his crucifixion. Wished he would have spoken up and defended himself at his trial. But his purpose was not self-preservation, his purpose was to submit deeply to one of the most bleak of human failures, and then to reframe it as a powerful contraction, something that would give birth to new human possibility, something that would provide new life.
This is the way that Jesus speaks of: the way, the truth and the life.
Birth and re-birth is one kind of language for the way and the truth and life, but there are other ways of describing it too. As a gardener, I personally love gardening metaphors and Rev. Anna Woofenden uses the notion of compost as a way to describe how God works in the world and in us. I quote:
The more I learned about compost, the more I saw the image of God in it, proclaiming the work she does in the world. God is the Divine Composter. She takes all that has been, all that we’ve used, our best bits and our slimy bits, the endings in our lives and the pain of loss, the tantalizing crumbs from our joyful moments and the leftovers we’ve kept for too long. God takes all of that and says, “Okay great, let’s see what we can do with it next!” (1)(129)
Our best bits, our slimy bits, endings, loss, joy and the things we wish we could hold on to…this sounds a lot like that last supper with Jesus and the disciples that we described earlier, full of tenderness, betrayal, love, and confusion. It sounds a lot like life. I think sometimes we want our faith to be like a shield. Something that is supposed to make everything okay. That if Jesus says don’t let your heart be troubled, then we think avoiding sadness will mean we are doing something right.
I think instead that faith is more like a resilient immune system. Or like bacteria in compost. Or like the process of birth. There might be fever, there might be breakdown, there might be contractions, but the fever, the breakdown, the contractions, they are not evidence that something is going wrong, they are evidence that new life is on the way. I know that I feel “troubled,” as in agitated and afraid, when I think the breakdown is all there is, when I’m afraid that new life isn’t possible. Faith though, is believing in the process and being willing to ride it out.
We read in our Swedenborg reading that it is an angelic quality to know the path from having walked in it and then to walk in the path from this knowing of it. To truly know the way, we must be willing to walk in that way, and let that experience change us and lead us. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. The way that embraces truth and leads to life.
(1) Anna Woofenden, This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, p129.
1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. 2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. 3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. 4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Divine Providence 60
We can know the path to heaven to some extent simply by considering what the people who make up heaven are like, realizing that no one can become an angel or get to heaven unless he or she arrives bringing along some angelic quality from the world. Inherent in that angelic quality is a knowing of the path from having walked it and a walking in the path from the knowing of it.
There really are paths in the spiritual world, paths that lead to each community of heaven and to each community of hell. We all see our own paths, spontaneously, it seems. We see them because the paths there are for the loves of each individual. Love opens the paths and leads us to our kindred spirits. No one sees any paths except those of her or his love.
We can see from this that angels are simply heavenly loves, since otherwise they would not have seen the paths that lead to heaven.