“Trouble & Trust” Colchester Federated Church, May 7, 2023, (John 14:1-14) Fifth Sunday of Easter

This morning’s Gospel text from the Gospel according to John is often read at funerals.  We may or may not remember all the details of the passage, but the line that often stands out is about Jesus promising that there are many dwelling places (or rooms) in God’s house.  There’s “plenty good room” in God’s kingdom as the spiritual goes.  Room enough for you and room enough for me.

This passage is translated in the Common English Bible as Jesus saying, “Don’t be troubled.  Trust in God.  Trust also in me.  My Father’s house has room to spare.  If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you?  When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.”[1]

When we hear Jesus’ words, we may think that Jesus is talking about a building—God’s house.  In the Christian tradition, we have sometimes referred to church buildings as God’s house or the house of the Lord.  After all, Jesus does say, “My Father’s house has room to spare.”[2]  It’s natural to think about dwellings in our minds as we may want something easy to visualize.  We may start imagining that God lives in a mansion in heaven (somewhere up there) surrounded by angels with harps who recline on clouds.  There’s the holy city with the literal pearly gates.  In these sorts of images of heaven, Peter is sometimes depicted as a bouncer in front of the pearly gates at a podium with a list as to whether somebody’s in or out.  Like a swanky night club.  Or we have famous works of art like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel in Rome to thank in part for the image of God as an old bearded man surrounded by angels coming down from the heavens to interact with humanity. 

Now it’s not bad if those are the images that come to our minds when we hear Jesus speaking to his disciples about God’s house with room to spare.  We can’t help but be influenced by images we see in popular culture or works of art.  Though the truth is that the image Jesus is using here is a bit different.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that house as Jesus is using the term is not a building at all, but household relationships.  In God’s household, there is room to spare. 

Doesn’t that bring up a whole other set of images?  Maybe a long kitchen table where it’s no bother at all to set another place.  Or an extra bed with extra pillows and blankets to lay down to sleep.  These are still house as a building images, but the point is the hospitality extended because of the relationship that exists among God and God’s beloved people.  In God’s household, there is room to spare because we are all children of God.  It’s like finding a long-lost relative or friends who become family and making the table longer to accommodate everyone.  Because there is room to spare in God’s household.  Everybody is family here.

Preparing a place means that Jesus is mediating a relationship between God and the disciples.  Jesus is shown in this passage to be God’s unique and authentic mediator.  Jesus tells his followers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”[3]  If the disciples truly know Jesus, then they know God.  What a concept that was during Jesus’ lifetime.  This Gospel passage is all about relationships.  We can understand Jesus’ words to not be spatial but relational.[4]  It all comes down to this invitation to have a real relationship with God, with Jesus, and with one another.  Not based on fear, but based on love.

It’s good that we often hear this passage when we remember and celebrate the lives of our loved ones.  Because it’s a passage about being welcomed into God’s fold both in this life and in the life to come.  For Christians, Jesus is the way and the life. 

As I was contemplating Jesus’ words this week, I kept thinking about Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.”  Specifically, Emily Webb’s famous soliloquy in the final act.  “Our Town” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and some folks have said that it’s the greatest American play ever written.  Thornton Wilder first published his three-act play in 1938 and it became his most renowned and frequently performed play.[5]  “Our Town” takes place in the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire between 1901 and 1913.  It’s based on Peterborough, New Hampshire, the town where Wilder often spent his summers.  The play is supposed to be set with no curtain and no scenery at all so that the audience can understand Grover’s Corners and the characters we meet as representing anybody we could find in any town USA.  The Stage Manager (who serves as the narrator) even breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience at times.

Part of the plot revolves around George and Emily’s courtship and getting married.  Though Emily ends up dying quite young.  The Stage Manager comes with her to earth to see her family one last time.  Emily chooses to relive her 12th Birthday as her visit.  And Emily finds the beauty of this rather ordinary day in Grover’s Corners beside her family (who can’t see her) to be overwhelming.  The fact that people seem to not understand the value of life and life’s simple pleasures brings her to despair. 

Emily says, “Good-by, Good-by, world.  Good-by, Grover’s Corners.  Mama and Papa.  Good-bye to clocks ticking.  And Mama’s sunflowers.  And food and coffee.  And new-ironed dresses and hot baths.  And sleeping and waking up.  Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”[6]  The Stage Manager bids the audience a good night soon after hearing these powerful words.  The play ends.

The truth is that we don’t always pay attention to the simple pleasures of life like sunflowers, food and coffee, hot baths, sleeping and waking up.  We don’t always focus on our loved ones.  And it’s understandable because life gets busy and sometimes full of trouble.  Jesus said, “Don’t be troubled.  Trust in God.  Trust also in me” before he speaks about God’s household having room to spare.  Jesus contended with trouble himself.  Though what does it look like when we trust God with it all?  Life and death, and life beyond death.  Maybe sometimes it is possible to realize life while we live it.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 14:1-3, CEB.
[2] John 14:2.
[3] John 14:6.
[4] Footnotes on John 14.1-14: The household of God in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with The Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, pg. 1906 New Testament.
[5] “Our Town,” The Thornton Wilder Society, https://www.twildersociety.org/works/our-town/
[6] Emily’s Soliloquy in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” as shared by SALT, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2023/1/17/from-emilys-soliloquy-in-our-town-by-thornton-wilder

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout.