“Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled”
Two months ago today, the members and friends of First Congregational Church gathered in our sanctuary for worship. Church felt typical. I announced we would be extending our flu season precautions of fist-bumps instead of handshakes during the Passing of the Peace. A practice that we were already doing, as we do every flu season, so it didn’t feel any different. I told you that Ganga, our administrative assistant, was on vacation and would be gone for a couple of days, and asked that you be patient while waiting for a response to a request or question. I took the kids to the back of the sanctuary to show them the old sound system – and we all laughed about our tape deck and sound controls that, quite literally, belonged in a historical display. I was just getting started with a long-planned Lenten sermon series on 20th and 21st C. prophets – just on my second week and second prophet. Our music leaders were starting to think about Holy Week and Easter – making sure we all had the dates right and working on finding the right balance between new songs and old favorites. A plan was in place to clean our nursery and buy new toys in anticipation of Easter, and a nursery staffed with volunteers from the Islamic Center. A menu was planned all the way through the end of June for Souper Thursday. Everything was typical, comfortable, and familiar. The word Coronavirus had entered our vocabulary, but not our everyday lives.
But, as that week moved on, the bottom fell out. Cases of COVID-19 were rising and we started to watch with horror what was happening in Italy and beginning in New York. Sporting events, and in some cases entire seasons, were cancelled. One by one, we received emails that a concert, or a lecture, or a trip for work we had planned wasn’t going to happen. School systems were starting to close, and universities were telling their students to not return from spring break. On that Friday the Church Council made the decision that the following Sunday would be our final in-person worship for two weeks. That week, the week of March 13th, there were 142,000 confirmed cases globally, with a world-wide death toll of 5,373.
When I wrote this sermon, Wednesday of this week, there are 3.7 million cases confirmed globally, and 260,000 deaths. Just in the United States, the current hot-spot of the pandemic, we have 1.25 million confirmed cases, and over 72,000 deaths. And, of course, those numbers are higher today than a few days ago when I wrote this. Two months ago today, for the most part, things felt quite normal here in SE MN. And during these last two months the word ‘normal’ is now said with a smirk, a sigh, or a tear.
I keep thinking about that Sunday two months ago. It feels like another world. If I had stood at the pulpit that Sunday and described for you how everything was about to change, you would have dismissed me, or maybe even wondered, aloud, if I had lost my touch with reality. If I had stood at the pulpit that Sunday two months ago and said, don’t worry – everything is going to change, fear and grief are about to settle in, but, do not fear, we will be alright – some of you would have gotten together, pulled me aside, and said, basically, what is the matter with you. I know this because that is what I would have done, if I had been someone sitting in the pews with you. We weren’t ready to hear any of that – the warning or the attempt at reassurance, because the bottom hadn’t fallen out yet.
So, when Jesus says to the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…,” they weren’t ready to hear that yet. Because, their hearts weren’t troubled. Yes, Jesus had been warning them for a long time that things were about to get bad. That he wasn’t going to be around much longer in a way they could understand. He had been warning them, over and over again, that his time was short. But, his followers just couldn’t comprehend that. They just couldn’t wrap their minds around what he was trying to teach them.
Today’s scripture, in the frustrating peculiarities of the lectionary, is, essentially, the evening of Maundy Thursday. It’s odd, I know, in that we are on our fifth Sunday of Eastertide, but, for a few minutes just let that go. Jesus is sitting with his disciples just a few hours before his betrayal and eventual execution. He is giving what is called his Last Discourse, essentially his last great sermon, his final teaching – before the bottom fell out. He is telling his disciples that he would be leaving them, returning to God. And, not only that, but his own disciples would, for a time, betray him. He turns to Peter, and in words that are familiar to us from Good Friday services, tells him that before the cock crows, Peter will have denied him three times. But, he doesn’t stop there.
Here is the thing, when the Gospels were written, there were no chapter and verses, they were just one long narrative. We have since broken up the text – taking it one chunk at a time. And, by doing so, we have set ourselves up for losing a lot of the meaning. So, I want to read to you the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson again, but I am going to start with the two preceding verses:
“Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe[a] in God, believe also in me. 2 In my 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?[b] 3 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.
Jesus tells Peter, one of his most faithful disciples, that he will betray him – deny him. Something Peter cannot image. Something so wrong, so frightening, so contrary to how he understands himself and his future, that it feels impossible. But, in the same breath that Jesus gives Peter a glimpse into his future, Jesus tells him – do not let your heart be troubled. But, the disciples weren’t ready to hear that yet.
The Gospel goes on with Thomas, trying to wrap his head around what Jesus is saying. Basically what Thomas says is this: ‘You’re leaving? Well, we want to come with you. Show us where you are going on a map so we can follow.” The disciples weren’t ready to hear it. The disciples weren’t ready to have their troubled hearts be put at ease. They had no way of truly understanding what Jesus was trying to prepare them for – but the anxiety and fear was starting to creep in. Jesus was trying to comfort them – don’t worry, I will be with you always, just in a completely different way – but they weren’t ready to be comforted.
On a Sunday two months ago we weren’t ready to be comforted. For some in our community, anxiety and fear was beginning to creep in, but we were, for the most part, able to ignore it. We weren’t ready to be comforted by the assurance that we can never be separated from the love and presence of God because we didn’t know we needed that reassurance. But, I think, now we might be ready.
My Beloved Community, do not let your hearts be troubled. The reassurance that Jesus offers his disciples is the same for us – God has room enough for us all, in God’s house there are many dwelling places. God does not just exist in the sanctuary, God exists in our homes. God is not only present in the person of Jesus, God is present in the very air we breathe. God is not just in the familiar, God is in the new and different. Do not let your hearts be troubled because God is with you.
Two months ago we could not have imagined worshipping in front of a computer screen, but now we are starting to experience the holy right where we are. Two months ago we could not imagine serving ourselves Holy Communion, but now we are beginning to realize that a sacrament celebrated apart still brings us together. Two months ago we could not have imagined that we could let go of all that routinely gave us purpose, but we have learned that we are stronger than we would have ever guessed.
I know, I know, not everything is alright. People are frightened about getting sick. People are frightened about getting others sick. We are all tired of staying at home and finding ourselves wanting to push the boundaries of what is known to be safe. People have lost their jobs and some of our favorite small businesses will not survive. People we love are dying at home and we can’t be there to comfort them. Everything is not alright. But that is not what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ He did not mean, ‘don’t worry, be happy.’ Jesus understood the fear and anguish his disciples were about to experience. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” It is going to be hard, but I will be with you always – in the very air that you breathe. It is going to be scary, but God will never abandon you to your fears. It is going to be sad, but mourning lasts just for the night, and joy comes with the daybreak.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Trust in the promise of the Gospel – that nothing can separate us from the love of God. I think we are ready to be comforted, and the great joy is that comfort already is with us. In the very air we breathe, we find God. In the very act of worship, we find community. And deep within us we find God, and our hearts are troubled no longer.
Let us pray:
We praise you, O God,
that we do not need to search the earth
to find you;
we do not need to engage in elaborate spiritual gymnastics
to bring you close;
we do not need to hide ourselves from the world
to be found by you.
No, in your immense love,
you have taken the initiative,
you have made yourself known,
you have filled every moment and every space
with your presence;
Inscribe on our hearts, God,
the love you have for us,
the life you give us,
the constancy of your presence with us;
Inscribe on our hearts, God,
the call to follow you,
the longing to know you,
the compassion to love as you do;
Inscribe on our hearts, God,
the story of salvation,
the part we play in your purposes,
the vision of your dream for creation;
Inscribe on our hearts, God,
all that you hold in yours,
or at least, as much of it as we can carry.
We pray this day, and all days, in the name of Jesus Christ – our comforting teacher, who taught us to say together…Our Father…