A sermon preached on May 22, 2011 based upon John 14:1 – 14, the day after the rapture didn’t happen.
There’s this old preacher’s joke — perhaps you’ve heard it. A man is hiking through the alps, walking along a narrow precipice, when suddenly he stumbles, falling off the edge. Desperately he grabs hold of root sticking out from the face of the cliff. There he hangs, overlooking a great abyss, clutching onto the root for dear life.
There is no possibility of climbing to safety. He cries out, “Hey, anybody up there?!!! Help me!!!”
A moment of silence, then… “I am here.”
“I can’t see you. Who are you?”
“I am the Lord your God.”
“O—kay!? What should I do?”
“My child – simply let go and trust me.”
The man looks down into the deep abyss. Then, “Is there anybody else up there?”
That’s where the old preacher’s joke ends. I came up with a new ending: From up above the man hears: “Yes. I’m up here too.”
“Great! Tell me what to do!”
“You don’t have to trust and let go.”
“I don’t?!! That’s a relief! Say, what did you say your name was?”
“Harold Camping. I’ve worked out the math. There is no doubt in my mind that in just a few minutes the rapture will arrive.”
When it comes down to it, Harold Camping was telling people they didn’t have to have faith. He claimed to be offering knowledge in place of faith, trust. He offered what he called “infallible proofs” that the rapture would show up yesterday. He guaranteed it. No faith required.
So it’s good to go back to Jesus, and hear what he had to say. He didn’t offer proof. He invited faith. In the passage we heard, the night before he died, Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
When I went back over John’s Gospel this week, I discovered something a little surprising. Three times Jesus himself is described as being troubled. Three times, in the three chapters immediately preceding the one Angela read for us, Jesus’ heart is full of trouble. He is described as troubled when he weeps for his friend Lazarus who has died. He is troubled when Judas betrays him. And he is troubled when he contemplates the fact that the hour of his death has come.
But Jesus himself says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” There’s two ways to look at this. One, Jesus is being deceitful. He’s telling his disciples not to be troubled when he himself struggled with his own troubled heart. I think that would be what we’re dealing with here if life were the way Harold Camping tried to imagine it being: all black and white with no shades of gray. Either you believe or you don’t, and if you express any doubts, well, then, you must not have faith.
But if trusting God is messier than that – if it’s a matter of wrestling with our troubles and our doubts and in spite of despite these troubling doubts going ahead and taking the leap, well, then, Jesus is just being real. This is what the faith walk looks like. Sure there are doubts and troubles. But it is possible to move through them. It is possible to come to a place where you are willing to put your life in God’s hands, even though you can’t see what’s coming.
Said Jesus to those troubled disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” Here is something different from what Harold Camping was telling us. He told us that in the Father’s house there was only room for two million people out of the seven billion people who inhabit this earth.
But Jesus implies something quite different: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Heaven is as wide as the heart of God. In heaven there is room for all. Jesus was saying, “Don’t be afraid. In this world, people may shut their doors to you. But in heaven, you will never be shut out.” Or as we like to say here at the Parsippany UMC, “There’s always room in the circle.”
Jesus continues: “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.”
We know that Jesus is talking about going into the dark valley of death. His disciples, however don’t seem to realize that yet. They begin to complain that they know neither where he is going, nor how, or how for that matter he will get there.
They are quite clear that they don’t know much at all, which, if truth be told, is a better place to come from than — like Harold Camping – to pretend you know more than you do.
It suddenly occurred to me yesterday that what we have in Harold Camping – despite the image he presented of calm certainty and self-assurance – is a frightened old man terrified in the face of his own impending death. When I saw Harold Camping this way, I suddenly felt sympathy for the guy.
Camping is somebody who is accustomed to being in control. This describes all of us to some extent, but Camping is more accustomed to being in control than most.
When it comes to dying, though, control is the very thing we don’t have. In the end, Harold Camping was just looking for another option than the one God offers that man hanging by the root over the great abyss. If he can prove the rapture is coming, Camping figured, he didn’t have to die.
So in the end, Harold Camping is just like everybody else. It’s not easy being 89 and having your belief system suddenly blown out of the water. When I saw Harold Camping this way, I felt compassion for him. He didn’t seem quite so obnoxious. He’s just another poor slob struggling to trust that yes, in the Father’s house there are many rooms. There might even be one for me.
In the end, we all have to deal with death. We try not to think about it, and that works fairly well a lot of the time, but death has this way of forcing itself into the conversation. None of us gets out of here without passing through death.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in one of her books about a conversation she had with a friend of hers on the subject of death and dying. In the course of a year, the friend had lost three friends unexpectedly.
He worried, naturally, that he might be the next to go, but as he thought about this possibility, he found himself remembering a scene from his boyhood in a southern town. He used traipse down to the river with some of the older boys and watch them swing far out over the fast-moving water on a rope tied to the branch of a tree. He sat and watched them arc across the sky and then let go of the rope, falling down the air and disappearing into the current.
A little ways downstream their heads broke the surface of the water and they swam back to shore, egging him on, urging him to take a turn in the air.
He was afraid, but he decided to try; they were his friends, after all, and he had watched them do it. He grasped the rope, got a running start, and swung far out over the water. At the height of his ride he will his hands to let go of the rope, but they would not – it was so far, the water was so fast, he was so afraid. He had watched how the other boys did it, but he had not a clue what allowed them to let go of the rope. So he hung there, dangling between sky and the river, until someone hauled him back to earth.
He doesn’t remember how many tries it took him before he finally let go, but he said that when he finally did, it was because of his friends. “They had all gone ahead of me,” he said. “I had watched each of them let go and finally I just made up my mind that if they could do it, I could do it, too. Without knowing what would happen, without knowing whether I would make it or how it would be, I just opened my hands and let go, because I wanted to join those who had gone ahead of me.”
He remembers that episode, he says, because that is what it is like now, watching his friends die. Still afraid of letting go, he has watched each of them do it and he believes more and more that maybe, just maybe, when it is his turn he can do it too, if only because they have gone ahead of him. (adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings, p. 123 – 5)
I can relate to what the man is talking about. I came to this church 22 years ago. In my first year here, I got to know a man named Gary Anderson who was slowly dying from an incurable disease. I was there with Gary and his wife Kathy when he took his last breath.
That first year I also got to know a man named Jack Kelshaw. His death came quickly, unexpectedly. I didn’t see him die, but Lois did.
In the years since, there many have followed Gary and Jack. Some went slowly, others quickly. I got to know them all – their lives touched mine. There was Eleanor Lozaw, and Jim Payne, Vern Davenport and Duane Allen. There was Ken Ormsbee and later his wife Madeline. There was Paul Miller and Margaret Hofmann and Sal Salierno. There was Mae Thomas, Joan Schrieber, Wally Decker, George Murray and Charlie Stevens. There was Ray Polen, Elizabeth Baumgartner, Hank and Myra Heitschal, Joy Frandsen, Betty Jennings, Marian Gibson, and Jeanette Nickelson. There was Dick Hunt and John Jernstrom and Marge Mortensen. There was Katherine Schreiner, Don Seeley, Sharon Adam and Ruth Sedlak. There was Russ Freerks, George Haeussler, Bill Hudley and Drew Morrison.
And of course, this past year there was Al Booth.
I knew all these people. Their souls touched mine.
And I find some comfort and some courage in the knowledge that they’ve already made the journey I must one day make – that they are already there waiting to greet me when I come too.
And before any of them made this journey into death, Jesus made the journey before them. He is, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith.”
He’d gone to prepare a place for them. And he has done so for us as well. his isn’t something we can know. But it is something we can trust.