Sunday, May 7, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 28:27; sermon starts around 34:35)
It was a summer night, back in the summer of 2002. I was seventeen, and my friends and I had spent the entire afternoon hanging out at the Cedar County Fair up in Hartington. It was a blast. We were on our way back home when it started to rain – at first a few drops, that then quickly turned into a torrential downpour. My friends lived on a farm place a couple miles north of town; I had driven there dozens – if not hundreds – of times. I definitely knew the way! But in the dark, with the rain pouring down, I somehow managed to make a teeeeensy little wrong turn. Instead of turning onto their road, I managed to turn onto the road one section north – a road that, a mile in, went from gravel to a minimum maintenance road (aka a dirt road).
You can imagine how that went for us! By the time I realized my mistake, it was already much too late. I had been driving pretty slowly, but the car still had enough momentum that when the tires left gravel, the mud immediately took control and just kinda grabbed onto the wheels and guided us right over into the ditch. I shifted the car into reverse and made kind of a half-hearted effort to try to back out of it, but I knew that we were well and truly stuck.
My curfew was rapidly approaching and I was starting to panic, desperately hoping to get home without having to tell my dad about the boneheaded thing I’d just done. My friends’ neighbors lived up the road and we had just passed their lane – so we decided to get out of the car and go back for help. We slogged our way through ditch water and mud, and showed up on their neighbors’ doorstep in the middle of the night, soaked to the bone and drenched in mud. And God bless them, even though we woke them up, ringing their doorbell and looking like swamp creatures, they got up and gave us all rides home – and the next day, they even went out with their tractor and helped pull my car out of the ditch.
What a blessing it is to have such incredibly kind and generous neighbors! And though I don’t have kids of my own, I can imagine the feelings of relief my dad and my friends’ parents probably felt knowing that their kids could safely knock on someone else’s door and find help, even in the middle of the night.
I’ve had this memory on my mind the past couple of weeks. There have been some stories in the news lately that brought it to mind. You may already be thinking about these stories too: multiple stories of kids turning into a stranger’s driveway or knocking on a stranger’s door, or trying to find their friend’s car – stories in which the outcomes have been much more devastating and tragic. Innocent mistakes – mistakes like the one I made when I was seventeen – happened to put these kids in the wrong place at the wrong time. But instead of being met with kindness or helpfulness – or even with the inconvenience of a minimum maintenance road – these kids have been met with suspicion and fear and deadly violence, even shot dead simply for knocking on the wrong door.
Gun violence in general has become a disturbingly common feature of life in the US. In 2023 alone, there have already been more mass shootings than there have been days. Our society is so gripped with this pervasive fear of the other – and as we become more and more divided by culture war issues and tribalism, our fear and distrust of people who are different from us just keep getting stronger and stronger. And amid the stresses of modern life, we can find ourselves driven by a desire to “protect what is ours,” to “stand our ground” and defend our way of life. We’re taught to see people we don’t know as threats to be neutralized instead of as neighbors to be welcomed, neighbors worthy of our care and help.
It’s a situation that starkly contrasts with the image of God’s house that we have in our gospel reading for today. In this passage from John, we find Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room on the last night of his life. In response to their fear and uncertainty, he speaks words of comfort to them; he tells them that even though they can’t follow him now, he is going to prepare a place for them – a place in God’s house. God’s house, as Jesus describes it, is a house with many rooms – a house with many dwelling places. It’s a house with room enough to spare for anyone who might show up on the doorstep – whatever time they might and arrive, however weary or strange or, say, covered in mud they might be. God’s house is a house of perpetual welcome and love.
God’s house is like the house of the neighbor who is willing to get up in the middle of the night to drive a gaggle of muddy teenagers home. God’s house is like my grandma’s house, where she yells for you to come in before you can even ring the doorbell, a house where the candy drawer is always full and just waiting to be raided. God’s house is like the house of the man whose funeral I did the week before last, where we also read this text – a house he built and rebuilt over the years out of love for the people who found their way under its roof. God’s house is a lot like this house, a house where we pray for each other and feed each other, a house where we encourage each other in our daily efforts to live out the love of Christ.
This vision Jesus offers of God’s house stands in witness against the violence of this world. It calls out the ways that fear has too often been allowed to take the place of love in our hearts. And it also teaches us a better way.
Jesus speaks these words of love to his disciples in a moment when they are feeling overwhelmed by fear. They are terrified by the prospect of Jesus’ impending arrest and execution. But Jesus’ message to them is clear. Just a few verses before this passage, we find the passage we read every year on Maundy Thursday, the one in which he gives them the commandment: Love one another just as I have loved you – and he says to them, This is how everyone will know you are my disciples: if you love one another. The love of Jesus doesn’t just stand in witness against fear; this love is actually the antidote to their fear. Love is what drives fear away.
Love is what can drive our fear away, if we let it – not just our fears as individuals or as a congregation, but our fears as a nation and as a world. Love is more than just the warm, fuzzy feelings that we get inside; love is an action. Love is a choice – a choice to do good for others, to show them hospitality, to actively seek out the well-being of another person, regardless of how we actually feel about them. Love is remembering that we will never look into the eyes of a person that God does not love – which means that we will never look into the eyes of a person we are not also called to love.
Love is the foundation on which God’s house is built. And through love, we become the very stones with which God’s house is built. God’s love at work in our hearts teaches us to recognize what fears continue to keep us divided from our neighbors and to learn to let them go. This love enables us to become the living house of welcome and belonging this world so desperately needs – a house where there are indeed many, many dwelling places.
Let us pray that we may we lay aside our fears and come to God – as the author of 1 Peter writes – to come to God as living stones, chosen and precious in God’s sight. And like living stones, may we let ourselves be built into a spiritual house – a house that stands in witness against violence and fear; a house that embraces anxious disciples and mud-soaked teenagers alike; a house where everyone who knocks will always find a welcome.