Paula Northwood May 24, 2020
Scripture: John 16:19–22, 31–33
Those of you who have raised children or been involved in the raising, teaching or mentoring of any child know that kids go through a period where they ask a lot of questions. Researchers have said curious children may ask close to 73 questions a day. I remember being asked many by my daughter and children in the churches I have served: “Why is the sky mostly blue?” “Why is God’s name God?” And, of course, “Where do babies come from?” Recently the questions have changed to “Why can’t I see my friends?” “Why can’t I play at the playground?” “Why do people die?”
I have heard of a 4-year-old asking these kinds of questions, and her mother finally said, “Please stop asking ‘Why?’ Please, no more why questions.” The child thought for a while and responded, “Can I ask ‘How come?’”
We all have questions right now. When will life get back to normal? Can I handle all these losses emotionally, financially and even spiritually? What if I get sick or someone I love gets exposed? How will we all survive this? How can we keep going in midst of such extreme loss? When the world is breaking our hearts, how do we cope with such grief?
Our text is about the questions that the disciples asked Jesus as he was starting to prepare them for his physical absence. He knew that grief can immobilizing. Grief can bring us to our knees like nothing else. And no matter who you are, grief is something we cannot avoid.
There is a Buddhist story about a grieving mother who once went to the Buddha and begged him to raise her dead child back to life. He refused at first, but she continued to plead with him. Finally, he agreed to work the magic if she would provide for him a certain kind of mustard seed found only in the homes of families who have never been visited by death or grief or loss. So, she headed off to the village and visited home after home. Of course, she could not find the life-restoring seed because no household had been spared death or grief. Learning this, she started offering the families comfort. She thought to herself, someone has to do it. So, she cooked for them and listened to their stories of loss and reached out to them in their grief in whatever way she could. After some time, she returned to the Buddha, and together they buried her child.
In our text, Jesus likens the grief of the disciples to a mother giving birth. It is painful during the process of birth, but, once you are through it, there is joy. I’ve titled this sermon “The Portal to Joy.” A portal, as you know, is a door, a gateway, a threshold or even a passageway. In our text the portal is the womb. A child must navigate this portal into life. But later in the chapter, the threshold is on the edge of a new world. Jesus says that after this terrible thing has come to pass—he does not really name it, but he is talking about his execution—he says that they will all scatter to their own homes alone. This takes on new meaning in our situation. We have been scattered into our homes, and we are waiting on the verge, on the exquisite edge of something. But what?
I have been thinking about portals. Another meaning of portal is a website serving as a point of entry to the World Wide Web. Or in the medical field it can be the point at which a pathogen enters the body. Some church porches are called portals. It seems that all portals are passageways to something different. All humans go through a sacred, mysterious portal at birth and at death, but there are also moments in life when we find ourselves confronted by a portal.
The disciples found themselves at such a juncture, and they had to decide whether this man named Jesus was worth following to death and beyond. Were his teachings so evocative, so compelling that they gave them a reason to live? Was this connection to God, something that Jesus pointed to throughout his life, a connection that could be experienced by them and others? Was there going to be indescribable joy on the other side of suffering, as he had promised?
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was convinced that faith must neither avoid suffering nor drown in it but move through it to find joy. And even though he often described himself as an extremely unhappy man, by the help of God, he considered himself indescribably blessed.
Most of know—if not intellectually, then by experience—that grief is excruciating. But like Kierkegaard’s words or as the poem read by Seth (“The Cure” by Albert Huffstickler) describes, you don’t get over grief, but you move with it, let the pain be pain, not in the hope that it will vanish but in the faith that it will fit in, find its place in the shape of things and not be any less pain but true to form. We too are indescribably blessed. As Jesus said, nothing—no person, no event, no virus, not even death—can ultimately take joy away from you.
Author Arundhati Roy writes:
What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
This rupture that Roy writes about is the portal, and we are present, here and now, on the exquisite edge. We can live in fear and anxiety or we can put our trust and hope in God. Jesus invited people to imagine a new world, a life that could be lived differently, more abundantly. Only a few thousand people ever heard or met Jesus in person, and yet his impact changed history for thousands of years. Why is that? So we ask, “What can we bring to this moment? Can we imagine a different world?”
Currently, our world is polarized and broken, and many are in despair. But as people of faith, we have a different message. The trust, good will and resilience needed for people and communities to get along and work together can be intentionally cultivated. The Minneapolis Downtown churches have partnered with the Twin Cities Social Cohesion Initiative. This Initiative’s mission is to deepen our faith expression in ways that create a diverse yet caring community—one that brings healing and wholeness to our lives, our communities, our nation and our world. If you have interest in participating in this initiative, please let me know.
On this Memorial Sunday, when we honor those who have sacrificed their lives for the common good, can we rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves? Can we go through this portal unencumbered by hate, prejudice, greed and dead ideas and look to the one who offers incomparable peace and indescribable joy and a map for the future? May it be so. Amen.
Clare Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).
Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca (accessed May 27, 2020).