As I sat down to study today’s Gospel Lesson in preparation for this sermon, a song began to play in my head and wouldn’t stop. See if you can identify the name of the song and the larger body of work from which it comes:
There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .
Did you guess it? It’s Somewhere from West Side Story, the modern day version of Romeo and Juliet in which the ill fated lovers–Tony and Maria– are victims not of feuding families but of feuding ethnic gangs. It’s a song of lament and a longed for vision of a place in which Tony and Maria can find peace and wholeness. That message hasn’t lost its relevance since Leonard Bernstein composed the score, and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, over 60 years ago. If anything, it’s more relevant than ever.
As the song has continued to play in my head I’ve thought a lot about the concept of place. I would venture to say that the landmarks of our lives are critically important. What are your special places? Perhaps a home you share or once shared with someone who made you feel safe and loved?
Obviously today you might be thinking of your mother, but not necessarily–you might be thinking of sharing a place or space with any person, or even a dear pet, who is or was a nurturing soul.
Or is your special place a community in which you study, work or volunteer, where you’re deeply engaged with the people around you and the work that you do? Perhaps your special place is in nature where you see God in the beauty of creation. Perhaps it’s in a worshiping community–I hope it’s this one! –where you are challenged and encouraged to keep growing into the person God has called you to be.
Place matters. We are shaped by the places we inhabit, for better and for worse, and by the people and creatures with whom we share those places. Let’s take a moment and a deep breath, and think about the places that have been, or still are, deeply meaningful and nourishing to each one of us.
Of course as we think about the importance of place we have to acknowledge that many people don’t have a place–people languishing in refugee camps, victims of environmental disasters, and people living with soul-crushing poverty and homelessness, to name but a very few examples. As we think of them we are reminded that we live with great privilege. The places we take for granted are the object of many other people’s longings. Like Maria and Tony whose song Jack just sang, multitudes of people in our world are desperate for peace, quiet, space, and communities in which they can know the joy of grace and forgiveness. Theirs is a cry of anguish, a yearning for the new creation we pray for every time we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The concept of place is important in today’s Gospel lesson. In this passage Jesus is talking to his disciples about his death, in what is known as “The Farewell Discourse,” spoken after the Last Supper and before his arrest. In it he tells them the sad truth that he is going to leave them and they will have to go on without him. He patiently teaches them in word, and ultimately shows them by example, that whatever is human must die, but that won’t be the end of the story. Jesus will rise from the dead and ascend to God to prepare a place for them, and for all of us who believe through their testimonies. He will then take believers to live with him and God, whom he intimately calls Abba, “Father.”
We pastors often read today’s Gospel Lesson at funerals, and while I think it’s very helpful to those who have lost loved ones, I’d like to invite you to consider it in a more general way this morning. It’s really a word of hope to all of us who live in this beautiful, yet broken, world. Jesus promises to prepare a place for the disciples and that includes you and me and everybody who has believed in him through their lineage of faith.
True to form, however, when Jesus tells them that he will prepare a place for them, the disciples just don’t get what he is saying. They want a map to the place he’s describing because they think it’s a geographical location. I’m pretty sure if GPS existed back then they would have been ready to type an address into their search boxes.
What we’ve got to remember is that Jesus’ use of the word place in this passage essentially means “presence.” He’s talking about sharing in the intimate loving relationship he has with God. As he contemplates his death, Jesus affirms that he will be living even more fully in the presence of God, and has every hope and intention of drawing his followers into that place of love that has no end.
When he says “I am the way, the truth and the life” he is inviting all of us into an even more immediate, joyful relationship with him and with God. Sadly, the next recorded statement –“no one comes to the Father except through me” –has been used to justify crusades, anti-Semitism, and other forms of religious persecution that violate everything we know about Jesus and his mission of drawing us into the heart of God. We don’t know for sure how that phrase came to be—perhaps it was the gospel writer’s concern for theological purity in times of persecution—but it in no way lines up with Jesus’ actions or his words elsewhere in John’s Gospel that he has sheep of other folds whom he shepherds and loves.
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” says Jesus and it is a word we need to hear today. As I meditate on those words, I also imagine him saying, “You know that I’m the way, the truth and the life because you know me. You know me through my work of teaching and healing, my speaking truth to power, my love for those whom the world rejects and despises. You’ve seen me open my arms to foreigners, women, children, and all those deemed of little worth by the power structures of this world. You’ve watched me spend hours, even days, in prayer where I gained strength, guidance, and clarity about the goodness of life. You’ve watched me surrender my life to God, only to receive it back again in astoundingly great measure. Through me you’ve had a glimpse of how wonderful life with God can be, and when your time and work on this earth are done, I want to take you even more deeply into that loving presence.”
As a pastor, and maybe even more as a fellow seeker myself, I’ve observed that we can fall into two different traps when thinking about life beyond this plane of existence. Either we avoid thinking about life after death and are consumed with this earthly life, or we get so fixated on the sweet “bye and bye” that we miss the life to which God calls us right here and right now. In the former case, we can end up feeling like everything depends on our efforts and stumble under the weight of this world’s sorrows. In the latter case, we over-spiritualize our journey, and, as the old saying goes, we become “so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good.”
I love this earthly life. It’s full of exquisite beauty and joy. It’s also filled with suffering and injustice that can make me want to hide under the covers on more days than I’d care to admit. But when I think about the places that have nourished me and given me strength to bear with hard times, I realize that they’ve been filled with presence–the presence of God and the presence of all sorts of loving souls God whom has placed in my life. (How about you? Where have you sensed God’s presence and with whom?)
I also realize that I’ve been able to follow God’s call to live with gratitude, joy, and a deep commitment to serving others because Jesus has taught us that life is very much a long game. The worst this world has to offer is not, and will never be, the end of the story. I believe in life after life, and while none of us knows what exactly that looks like, I believe because of Jesus’ promise that we will live in ever-deepening presence with him and God. As Holy Week began, and we remembered Jesus’ earthly suffering, the choir sang the beautiful chant, “Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.” Where love is, God is. When all is said and done, we will live in love.
There’s a place for us. There’s a place for us in this world, both tasting its sweetness and being all in for its healing and redemption. And when our earthly work is done there’s a place for us, a place where the song of Tony and Maria will finally come to pass, where wholeness and peace will rule, in the fuller presence of God. There’s a place for us, a place on both sides of the veil because, after all, our place is always with God. In this we rejoice!