buried under the bridge to the imperial palace in Prague. The vision was compelling, but too far to journey to pursue. But then for three more nights the Rabbi had the same dream, and he thought to himself “God must be summoning me.”
Isaac, son of Jekel set out to journey to Prague, on foot, and it took him many days. When he arrived in Prague he was disappointed to discover that the bridge he had dreamed of was guarded by armed soldiers. He lurked around the bridge hoping he might have an opportunity to dig for the treasure, and the Captain of the Guard, noticing him, asked “What’s the trouble? What are you looking for?”
So Rabbi Isaac told the Captain of his dream. The soldier laughed, saying, “You must be kidding – dreams don’t mean anything! I myself had a dream that there was a treasure buried behind the stove in the house of a rabbi named Isaac, son of Jekel, who lives in Crakow. You don’t see me going there!”
The Rabbi thanked him for his sage advice, and journeyed back home. He began to dig behind his stove, and indeed, discovered a treasure there that allowed him to live in comfort for the rest of his life.1.
Turning to today’s gospel reading from John we find ourselves uprooted chronologically. In recent weeks we’ve been with the disciples following Jesus’ death and heard a series of resurrection appearances, in a garden, a locked room, and on the road to Emmaus. This morning the lectionary sends us back in time to night before Jesus’ death, and has us listening in on the conversation in which Jesus prepares his friends for his departure, and for their ongoing work without him.
The church community for whom John was writing had a unique perspective and particular concerns: unlike first generation of Jesus’ followers, they had seen destruction of Jerusalem in first Jewish Revolt, and were coming to terms with fact that apocalypse expected by Paul and others had arrived.
Perhaps they were asking, in new way, what it meant to go forward in Jesus’ absence. The teachings in Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses” in John’s gospel answered those concerns. Our lectionary offers them to us, in these last two Sundays before ascension and Pentecost, to remind us of the same teachings.
In this first part of the discourses Jesus offers comfort and assurance about his impending departure. This morning I want to address just one of the several important sayings we find there.
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? 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.
We frequently hear this passage at funerals, and have, I think quite unfortunately, come to understand it as being about a life in a heaven that followers of Jesus will go to after we die. It’s worth taking another look.
The traditional translation of the King James Bible has Jesus saying that my Father’s house has many mansions, or sometimes habitations. At its most extreme, this has sometimes been preached as a great heavenly hotel, with one mansion for Episcopalians, another for Baptists, one for Methodists, Catholics, and so forth. Can’t you see Jesus getting the beds made up and putting chocolates on the pillows?
The Greek word we now translate as dwelling place or abode is monai, and it doesn’t mean so much an established structure, let alone a mansion, as it refers to a temporary resting place for a traveler.
Monai (in the Hellenistic world) were associated with caravans. In ancient cultures a contingent of folks would go ahead of the caravan to "prepare a place" so that when the caravan arrived there, the camp ground had been made ready, the water supply located, and food prepared. Travelers in the caravan would have a place of comfort to spend the night.
So the dwelling places Jesus prepares for those he loves are not permanent accommodations so much as places where, on our ongoing journeys, we can find rest, comfort, hospitality, community.
New Testament theologian NT Wright points out that Jesus uses the phrase “my Father’s house” one other time in John, and once in Luke, in both instances refering to the Jerusalem Temple. Wright makes case that the Temple “for the Jewish people is that place where heaven and earth meet, where people are in relationship with God.”2
Could it be that the dwelling places Jesus prepares are not physical places - let along places outside of our world, or places beyond our lifetimes – but the opportunity of finding rest and peace, in intimate relationship with God, HERE? NOW?
It is a tough concept to wrap our heads around and not just us. Thomas wanted coordinates for this place where Jesus was going, to plug into his GPS. Philip wanted a more detailed description.
And surely, we all share that impulse to know exactly where and how we can find rest, find peace, where we can experience the comfort of God’s presence in the midst of the troubled and troubling world we live in.
This is the thread, I think, that runs through Rabbi Isaac seeking the treasure that would allow him to live a life of comfort, and then through Jesus offering a promise of comfort to his friends.
And there is yet another place this thread runs through this morning. In just a few minutes we are going to hear DaCamera Singers share a piece from a much larger composition that they will be singing later on in the month. It is based on a story of terrible tragedy, a cruel hate crime against a young gay college student that resulted in his death. The piece offers a vision of forgiveness, however, and is full of hope.
The movement we’ll hear this morning comes near the end of the oratorio and takes the image of the “old fence” to which Matthew Shepard was tied and abandoned and suggests that it is a place where we can meet after “walking through the darkness”, where we can lay down our burdens, and join “that great circle of dancing”, dancing “with all the children who’ve been lost along the way”. When we meet there, we will “welcome each other, coming home, this glorious day.”
Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard is not an explicitly Christian piece – though Matthew Shepard was an Episcopalian – but it is surely Sacred Music, and I can’t help but think that it in many ways shares the same message as the gospels – that Divine Love, often enough expressed through human generosity and forgiveness, can transform the violence we humans are so capable of inflicting on one another.
As we hear this piece this morning – and I encourage you to come hear the larger work when it is performed later this month – I invite you to hear in it the same hope and promise that Jesus offered his friends in the upper room.
Rabbi Isaac believed the promised treasure was in Prague. We’re always thinking it’s “out there” somewhere, some “otherwhere’, in the future, with greener pastures, that we’re trying to get to.
Rabbi Isaac, unlike the captain of the guards, had his heart open enough to discover that the treasure was hidden right under his own floor.
Craig Hella Johnson takes the promise further, suggesting that if we are committed to doing so, we can find peace even in a place where hatred has drawn blood.
For those of us who are Christian, Jesus is where we meet God and where we find rest. In Jesus, there isroom for all, a dwelling place. There is no need to go anywhere, for God’s love is already with us and in us, and among us. It is where we can rest in stillness – we are home already.
The promise Jesus makes is not about a particular place called heaven with rooms or mansions or houses, but more about a continued relationship with the Holy One, a relationship that begins while we are in the womb, that continues throughout our lives that will carry-on after death.
It is a promise that whatever happens, we will “abide” with God in Christ.
In this Easter season we give thanks that who Jesus was and what Jesus did in life continues on in the Risen Christ, and that we, through our life in community, continuing the work of reconciliation and the offering of hope, are part of that same risen life. Amen.
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