Monday, April 21, 2008

I am the Way

Sometimes, after I preach on something, I find one of my colleagues has said it better than I. My good friend Elizabeth Kaeton posted this sermon on her site. There are a few things that I don't agree with in this sermon. I do believe that Christ is A way. It happens to be the ONLY way for me. But for the Moslem, Jew, Buddahist or Taoist it is a way.

One of the things I so enjoy about Elizabeth is her ability to poke fun at Episcopalians while still being unfailingly loyal to the Episcopal Church.

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” John 14:1-14
V Easter – April 20, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

There is a deep pastoral irony in this passage of scripture. Whenever I sit with a bereaved family who has just lost a loved one, nine times out of ten, this is the passage they will select to be read at the funeral mass. There is something deeply comforting about the image of “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

However, nine times out of ten, that same family will ask, “Um . . .but . . . could we end it at “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life? Could we not use that one line: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

We live in a pluralistic culture which knows pluraform truth. Many of us have either intermarried or have very dear friends whose ethnicity as well as religious belief and spiritual expression are vastly different than our own. And, we believe, deeply and with all our hearts, that we will all be together in Paradise.

The old joke is told that a man dies and goes to heaven and is given the grand tour by St. Peter. At one point, they approach one room of the many roomed mansion of heaven, and St. Peter cautions the man to be very quiet and, in fact, walk on tip toes. After they pass the room, the man turns to St. Peter and asks, “Why did we have to do that?”

“Oh,” says St. Peter, “that’s the room for the Roman Catholics. They think they’re the only ones here.” Well, the same can be said for some Evangelicals. Indeed, some of them are Anglican.

But, there’s another part of that story. At one point, St. Peter beckons the man to look down to a particular place in hell. “My goodness!” exclaims the man, “What did those poor souls do to deserve such punishment?”

“Oh, them?” says St. Peter. “Those are the Episcopalians and Anglicans who couldn’t tell the dessert fork from the salad fork.” The man gasps, “Oh, but look! There’s a special place in hell for those who can not tell their bread plate from their neighbors.”

Just so you don’t all end up in hell, I’ll give you a little hint that I was taught in seminary: put your fingers together to form a lower case “b”. The hand that looks like a “b” is the side your bread plate belongs. The hand that looks like a “d” is the side your drink belongs. There, now you are all assured of getting to heaven!

It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? Except, some folk take this stuff very, very seriously. Dead seriously. So do I. So let me say this clearly: I believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I don’t believe He is “a” way. I don’t believe he is “a truth”. I don’t believe he is “a life.” Indeed, he has become the centerpiece of my life and vocation.

I can scarcely sing the words of George Herbert’s poem put to that magnificent hymn “Come my Way, My Truth, My Life,” without becoming all girly-blurby, as the English say. In a few moments, we’ll be singing that great hymn, which I will sing from the deepest place of truth in my heart and my soul.

And . . .and, . . and . . . I believe what Ellie Weisel is quoted as having said: I believe there are many paths, but one way to God. My path is, I believe, also my way. It may not be the way of others but that does not mean that they are not on their way to God.

I believe that Mahatma Gandhi is in heaven. So is Anne Frank. Oscar Schindler is there with her. So is every living person who has ever made the ultimate sacrifice and laid down his/her life for a friend, as well as those who have done other amazing, albeit anonymous deeds of courage and faith.

Indeed, I believe that there are special places in heaven that even Calvinist Evangelicals won’t get to see which will be inhabited by Muslims and Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, Shintos and Buddhists.

Someone is crying “Blasphemy!” Well, okay. You are absolutely entitled to your belief. And, my friend, so am I. Why do I believe this? Well, let me tell you this story before I answer your question.

While traveling separately through the countryside late one afternoon, a Hindu a Rabbi and a Critic were caught in the same area by a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours,” the farmer told them. “You’d better stay here for the night. The problem is, there’s only room enough for two of you. One of you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu. “A little hardship is nothing for me. He went out to the barn. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry,” he told the others, “but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must never intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry,” said the Rabbi. “Make yourself comfortable here. I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother, “ he said, “but there is a pig in the barn. In my religion, pigs are considered unclean. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my sleeping quarters with a pig.”

“Oh, all right,” said the Critic. “I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few moments later there was a knock on the door. It was the cow and the pig.

The point is, of course, that while we may be tolerant of religious diversity, what most of us can not tolerate is arrogance and the pretense of superiority and illusion of perfection. Let me fill you in on a little secret, if you haven’t already figured it out: no one, no thing, is perfect on this side of Eden. The only way you get to perfection is to enter the Gates of Death.

Which is how I want to answer your question: Why do you believe that heaven is also for those who are not Christian? My answer comes from the very lips of Jesus who said, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. “ It’s just that some of us will think we’re the only ones there. That’s not true, of course. It’s just that we’ll each have our own room in which to ‘dwell.’

What does this have to do with the church? Well, one last story. It may be apocryphal, but I understand that it is true. It happened in France, during WWII, in the last days of the war. Four US soldiers had been through the war together. They had shared their dreams and laughter, their fears and longings. Each felt the other was a brother.

One of the men was shot and mortally wounded. His three friends deeply grieved his loss and wanted him buried before they left the country. So, they went to see the local priest at the church in the center of town which had a very large graveyard, and asked if their friend could be buried there. The priest asked, “Well, was he baptized?”

The three men looked at each other and were completely dumbfounded. “You know, Father,” said one, “I know that he was a man of prayer. I know he loved God. But, I don’t think he ever mentioned being baptized.”

The men were sorely disappointed when the priest told them that only the baptized could be buried in that cemetery. Finally, the priest took pity on them and agreed to bury the man’s body in a plot of land just outside the fence which enclosed the graveyard.

Five years later the three men got together for a reunion and returned to that little town in France to visit the grave of their buddy. But, when they got there, they were startled not to find his grave. They searched high and low but could not find it. Finally, they found the priest and, deeply upset, asked him what had happened.

“Oh,” said the priest, “I remember you. Well, I thought and prayed about it, and, well, I decided to move the fence.”

Given the realities of our world, understanding the great diversity and plurality of our culture, I think the church is going to need to consider moving a few well-constructed church fences around some of the graveyards where our most cherished ideas are buried.

I believe there is room enough in heaven for everyone who loves God and does the will of God, because no matter what particular path they follow, there is one way to God. That won’t make everyone happy with me. Thank goodness that’s not in my job description.

Oh well, at least I can tell my bread plate and my water glass! Now, you so do, too! See you all in heaven! And I believe we’re ALL going to heaven. Amen.

Comment: Perhaps it is the exclusionary use of this passage over the centuries that makes this passage difficult. The emphasis on THE way, THE truth and THE Life that has been translated ONLY over the past 200 years or so, that makes me cringe about this passage. Jesus, in every thing that he did and preached, included those who were generally excluded. That we should recognize that John's gospel was being written for a group of followers of Jesus who were being excluded is part of this passage. And from that perspective, this passage is very comforting. But from being one who is being excluded, this passage hurts more than it comforts.

I know that at one point in my coming to Christ, I had to recognize that Jesus was calling me to have faith in him. I could easily have been a Jew, but it was not my culture. I might have been a Buddahist but I was raised and was comfortable in a Christian culture. My faith in God worked itself out in how I lived, in the life that I knew. For so many reasons, faith in God is mediated in our surroundings. For me and for those of us who are in the Church of Jesus Christ, we have come to have a relationship with God through the presence of Christ among us, in the communion of the assembly, in the word preached and lived, and in the shared vision of life. It is this truth makes itself known and reminds us of God's presence now and forever.

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