“Troubled and Consoled”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said. And yet, these are troubling times. We have many reasons to be troubled. What’s troubling you? I’d love it if you would share your responses in the chat.

I’m troubled by the stress and anxiety my children are feeling. I’m troubled because Ace, our family’s new dog, who we all fell in love with in just two days, is lost. I’m troubled, because we may not be able to worship together again in the sanctuary for a very long time. I’m troubled because it’s so hard to grieve our losses and celebrate our joys.

I’m troubled, seeing first-hand how much people are struggling to afford basic necessities. I was at church for a few hours this week. When I arrived, I put some food in the little free pantry. Two hours later, most of it was gone. I’m troubled because white supremacy is thriving. Ahmaud Arbary was executed because he was exercising while black in South Georgia. Douglas Cornelius Lewis was murdered for driving while black in St. Paul. As Charles Blow of The New York Times pointed out in a Twitter post, these men were dead in a split second because “rampant anti-blackness marks their masculinity as a menace.” In other words, their deaths reveal that white people are socialized into an irrational, subconscious fear that kills.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus spoke these words to his disciples on the eve of his own crucifixion. That night, the troubles were menacing and close—the denials and betrayals of friends, the trial at the hands of the authorities, the pain and terror of dying. So, I don’t think Jesus was spouting “toxic positivity.” He wasn’t urging his followers to avoid difficult emotions or deny unsettling truths. He was saying: your trouble isn’t the only truth.

One evening this week, I set out for a walk as the light was fading. My feet followed my steadily ruminating thoughts and before I knew it, a quick jaunt for some fresh air had turned into quite a long journey. The darkness settled solidly around me. I noticed that some curtains remained open in the homes I passed. I found my eyes drawn inside, not so much out of curiosity as out of a longing to connect. At one kitchen table, a family sat playing a game. In another living room, someone was watching TV alone. I thought about how our homes have become little self-contained bubbles, how, in this time, we can’t quite reach each other. We can only stand outside each other’s windows looking in.

As I gazed into the rooms and the lives of these strangers, the words of Jesus rang in my ears. “In my mother and 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?” We are called to love one another now through the discipline of separation. It’s hard. It’s sad. It’s not how we were meant to live. We long to share intimate space, to make eye contact and reassure each other with touch, to chat across the table, to hear our voices blend with others’. And yet, even as we stay home and stand six feet apart, as we talk through screens and masks, Jesus’ words remind us that we are not alone. We live together in the many, interconnected dwelling places of one house, God’s house.

“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.” In Greek, the word for “dwelling places” is linked to the concept of “abiding,” which is a theme in the Gospel of John. “Abide in me,” Jesus tells the disciples elsewhere. He doesn’t promise physical security. He promises the security of his presence—to comfort and console us, to heal, renew and transform us. Like branches that grow from a vine, we draw life from Jesus, the Christ, our connection to the source. God stays with us. God is our home, our shelter, our dwelling place. Through Jesus, we can see and hear, touch and trust this truth. Jesus reassures us: we don’t have to search for God. God is looking for us. God is drawing us in. Wherever we are, God is already there.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, in the chapter called “The Gift of Strawberries,” Robin Wall Kimmerer contrasts an economy of gifts with the private property economy. She observes:

One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our own gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become. . . . In those childhood fields, waiting for strawberries to ripen, I used to eat the sour white ones, sometimes out of hunger but mostly from impatience. I knew the long-term results of my short-term greed. But I took them anyway. . . . The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries  and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze. (pp. 31–32)

Which story will we believe, and live? The story of abundance or the story of fearful scarcity? The story in which physical isolation is also spiritual disconnection  or a reason to remember that we inhabit one, shared house? Our church building can be a fortress sitting empty. Or it can be a sign of love, a place to find solace and strength. We have our little pantry and our yard signs. That’s good storytelling. Some of us will participate in a Marcy-Holmes neighborhood task force to discuss how we can be part of neighbors mutually supporting each other in this time. At our board meeting this coming Tuesday, we will be in discernment about how to share resources within and beyond our congregation. This is a crucial moment for our state as well, as many lawmakers are calling for austerity and cutting in response to a budget deficit. It’s time to insist on a different narrative, to speak about an economy that creates wealth through giving and receiving, through reciprocity through caring for people and the earth. Taking more away from the poor and hurting is not our only option. Those who have more than enough can step up and do their part.

Jesus said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus was with his disciples on this side of death, offering a path to resurrection life. Resurrection is not life after death; it’s new life, life transformed, in the here and now. The “way” of Jesus is a practice, not a dogma. It’s the art of abiding with God, sharing one house with many dwelling places. It’s the act of trusting that there is a place prepared for each one of us. It’s the spiritual muscle that allows us to navigate trouble—to receive and share comfort and consolation. It’s the story of abundance we tell: we live in a world of gifts. Amen.