Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In March, I rented a cabin at an inn in Eastern Kentucky for a short retreat. It was a gray, bone-chilling day, much too cold for the season, with whipping wind and spitting snow. Entering the cabin, my heart melted as quickly as the ice on my boots. There was a gas fire already burning in the fireplace, sending a warm glow around the homey room. In small vases on each table, there were tiny bouquets of spring flowers. In the kitchen, there was a fresh-baked loaf of banana bread and an assortment of teas, already set out, just for me. Magazines and books were spread around the room, beckoning. The décor was full of comfy cushions and warm, natural wood. Everything that I saw in that cabin was carefully prepared to offer immediate welcome—to say, “Come, rest here in my arms. You are cared for, just be.”
Now, I paid a hefty sum for my welcome on that winter day. But there are times, aren’t there, when we prepare a place for a loved one, just because we love them? I’m thinking of expectant parents, excitedly preparing the nursery for a new baby, picking out the safest crib, gently placing tiny outfits in dresser drawers, all for a child as yet unborn. I’m thinking of newlyweds, preparing their first apartment for the couple that they are still becoming, carefully blending “his” and “hers,” choosing just the right picture to hang over the bed. I’m thinking of children, preparing the house for their new puppy, still at the kennels. They pick out just the right chew toy at the pet store, set soft blankets in the crate, find the perfect spot for the food and water bowls near the family kitchen table. I’m thinking of adult children, preparing a parent’s final earthly home. They are entering into a new kind of relationship with mom or dad, uncertain, as they haul in mom’s favorite dresser or dad’s favorite chair. They choose and hang family photos, as they make a nursing room into a place that treasures what was, and prepares for what will be.
“I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel. Speaking to his disciples right before he is taken away to be crucified, Jesus offers them the rather confusing words of comfort that we hear today. When we read this scripture, we often assume that it is a reference to life after death: Jesus ascends to the Father in Heaven and prepares a place for us there when we die. But Jesus isn’t emphasizing “where we go when we die.” We don’t have to wait to die in order to dwell with Jesus in the love of God.
For John, physical location is a symbol of relationship. Poor Thomas thinks that he needs Google Maps in order to find the place where Jesus is going. Instead, John tells us that it is the person of Jesus himself, not some far off place, that is God’s residence. That’s what, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” means. It doesn’t mean that God only cares about Christians. It means that we don’t set off on a journey to “find God” all by ourselves. God is here, with us. God dwells in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus is the face of God on earth. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus explains to the disciple Philip. The reason that the disciples should know the way to God’s place is that they have already been there—indeed, they are there—as they interact with Jesus himself. They know God as they watch Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them. They know God as they watch Jesus heal what is broken, as they watch him calm the storm and give sight to the blind.
The many “rooms” or “dwelling places” in God’s house are, in the Greek, “resting places.” They are “abiding places” where we can be in relationship with God, as closely as Jesus is in relationship with Him. Jesus brings us into the deep, life-changing relationship that he shares with the Father. In Jesus, we can be who we truly are, unafraid of rejection. In Jesus, forgiveness abounds, more than we could ever earn or deserve. In Jesus, deep joy wells up, and spills over to those around us. These abiding places are here, in us, in the love of this Jesus, in whose name we pray.
I immediately thought about the ways in which our young people describe their experiences at All Saints’ Camp. “We can be ourselves in that place,” they all say. “We matter.” “It’s OK to be silly and have fun.” “People from all different races and places and groups can dare to come together as one, to accept one another despite differences.” [Ask kids if they can add anything to this.] The children might tell us that All Saints’ is a magical place. But it’s not the piece of land in Leitchfield that is magical. It’s the amazing power that comes to us when we are in Christ, and Christ is in us, and Christ is working through us, doing more than we can ask or imagine.
Indeed, I have an image of preparing a place that is perhaps better than the country inn that I visited, better than my description of family members caring for their own. One night, Episcopalians of all ages gathered in a quite dingy and bare apartment in south Louisville. They hauled in boxes and boxes of things that the whole parish had collected for a refugee family from the Congo, more than the family would probably really need. We hooked up a TV set; we vacuumed and swept; we set food items in the pantry that would remind the family of their old home in Africa; we set the table for a feast. We hung clothes in the closets and put pretty towels in the bathroom. Teens, who usually groaned about making up their own beds, grinned as they made up these beds, choosing toys and stuffed animals to spread around the children’s bedroom. Every detail was carefully and lovingly arranged in welcome. Although strangers--strangers who spoke a foreign tongue and whose ways we did not know-- this family was about to rest in this place here with us in the presence of Christ. We weren’t just preparing an apartment for KRM, we were abiding in the love of God, and we could feel the joy and rightness of it.
In Christ, in the relationships where he meets us, we will no longer roam as rootless refugees through the earth, hungry for home. Instead, we will become the stones brought together as God’s home, secured by Christ, our Cornerstone, and as tightly in relationship with one another as the stones in the home that our children have built for us today.*
Children, what will happen if you take away the big brick, the cornerstone, from underneath your home? (It will fall.) What will happen if you take out any of the stones from inside the walls? (It will fall.) We are the stones. Christ is the cornerstone. All are indispensable and intertwined—now, today. Abide in one another. Abide in the God who abides in you, always rearranging your furniture. Become the living place that Jesus prepares for the life of the world.
*Say to the children, before the readings. “Children, I have a job for you to do today. You are going to hear a lot about rocks and stones in today’s readings. Every time you hear the word “stone” or “rock,” I would like for you to pick up several stones from this box and collect them on the ground in front of you. Then during the sermon, I want for you to use all of the stones to build a wonderful home, right on this brick here. The brick is your cornerstone. It will hold your building together. Remember, use all the stones to build one home. No fair each building your own little thing. I need for all of you to work together to build ONE. It will help the grown-ups understand the sermon, so I’m counting on you. OK?
Photo of cabin at Snug Hollow Bed and Breakfast, https://snughollow.com/