Sermon: No End of Dwelling Places
“In my Father’s house are many dwelling places … I go to prepare a place for you … and I will come and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
This Scripture was read at my dad’s funeral eighteen years ago. In the eulogy I offered on my sisters’ and my behalf, I referred to it and said we could even see my dad already putting extra shelves and cupboard space in his and his neighbours’ places. It comforted us to imagine him carrying on in heaven as he had loved to on Earth, with the same desire to maximize usefulness and the same generosity of heart and time.
We read this passage a lot at funerals, and it’s a testament to our faith and our need that we see such promise in it – that our loved one is not alone, is not without a home, is not apart from God – but is even nearer than before.
The image of the heavenly home also brings to mind jokes we know – about different denominations or religious traditions having their own rooms upstairs. We imagine walls and closed doors for those who need to feel specially saved … and people being told at the pearly gates to “tiptoe quietly past the third room on the right … because that’s where the Baptists are (I used to be a Baptist) and they think they’re the only ones here.”
The jokes are a way of nudging ourselves beyond the parochialism and the prejudices that we sometimes feel and fall prey to here on Earth.
But what about Earth? What about life and the household of God and the fear and frustration with God and with life we so often feel right here?
In the passage we have read there are two particular words I want to focus on for a few minutes. They’re in the one line, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places…” and the first is the word translated as “house.”
The Greek word in the Gospel is oikia and its meaning is not “house” as in “building” or “structure” or “the house” that we come in and out of. Rather, it’s “house” as “household” or “family” – as the people and resources of the household and how they are arranged and managed.
Jesus in John 14 is not painting a picture of a palace or a mansion or any house-building; he is talking about how God arranges and takes care of the people and resources under God’s care. And it’s not so much heaven he is talking about, as it is Earth and life here and now.
“The Father’s house” that Jesus cares about and comes to redeem is the Earth and all living things upon it. This is God’s domain – the cosmos God called into being as a dwelling place for God’s glory and good will, and Jesus comes to set it right – to bring all creation into proper relationship.
Which brings us to the second word in this great affirmation of hope about life in the Father’s house – “dwelling places.” The Greek word is monai, which comes from the verb meno which means to abide, to dwell, or to dwell together.
In the jokes and stories about heaven and in the comfort we find at funerals we interpret these “dwelling places” as rooms or mansions we inhabit after death. But in the time of the Gospel monai refers to temporary resting places for travelers, particularly in the desert and on long caravan trips. In every caravan there would be a few people whose job it was to go ahead of the others and “prepare a place” so that when the rest of the caravan arrived there, tents and water and food would be ready and waiting for them. The travelers in the caravan would have a place of comfort to spend the night, be together, and be refreshed.
Jesus is not talking about a nice place to spend eternity – “fancy digs in the hereafter.” Nor about a place where we’re safe from having to associate with people we don’t feel comfortable with. Rather, he’s talking about a movable and moving place of welcome, hospitality and community for people of all kinds travelling together on a journey beyond themselves.
His language echoes Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy where he says, “the LORD goes before you in the way to choose a place.” Just as Moses helped the people follow God’s leading towards good dwelling places – places of being cared for and renewed as a community by God along their way, so Jesus leads us to places like that too (and note the plural).
Good dwelling places is God’s way of managing the world and making life good for all. And there are many ways of being together – many ways of dwelling in peace and right relationship.
It’s one of the things I first learned when I came to Fifty almost 13 years ago. Being a minister of the Word and sacrament, in charge of the liturgy and sermons, I knew that this hour every Sunday morning is a holy dwelling place that I and a few others prepare each week for you to come to along your way. It’s a place to meet and be together – with the tent set up, and inside it, food and water and a place to rest and renew your weary soul.
But that’s not the only dwelling place prepared here. There’s also the hour or so of after-worship gathering down the road at Tim’s, and I was told in all honesty that it’s every bit as important as the hour we spend here. I believe it.
And then, there is also the time some people count on prior to worship. Maurice Childs was the first to mention it to me – how he would come at least a half-hour and sometimes more before the start of our shared worship – what he called “the minister’s worship service”, to sit in simple silence in the sanctuary for what he called “my worship” or “my time with God” – just as important as the hour that I help prepare.
Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places … I prepare a place for you … and I will come and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Sometimes we help create dwelling places for others without really knowing or controlling just how it is a dwelling place. When we created the youth room, for instance, out of one of the old Sunday school spaces at the back of the Upper Room, we had no idea how to design it or exactly what it would be used for. All we knew was to make the space available, dedicate it to the youth group, and let them use it as they wished and needed. And they did. There were some organized events and meetings there. But from what I saw one of the more holy functions of the room was when some of our teens were able just to hang out there and do what they needed to do together, while their parents were busy with something else in the building.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places … and I will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Somehow, completely apart from any planning or direction on our part, Jesus was there and they were with him. And isn’t that how God manages the world and makes life good?
And now that it’s no longer a youth room – with those young people off at university and starting to live adult lives of their own, and the next set not quite yet at the youth group stage, what do we – or what do God and Jesus, do with the space? It’s been used as a Sunday school room – great! It’s been used for storage – probably not so great. And now it will be used as a safe, friendly space for teaching music to children in the community – great again!
And the potential of another youth group? Someone mentioned recently that when that time comes around again, the best place to meet might not even be at the church but in someone’s house because we as a church cannot offer the kind of technology and stuff that will likely be a focus of their gathering. What we can help prepare, though, wherever they meet, is the spiritual food and water and rest that their young journeying souls will still need.
In God’s household – in the way God manages life on Earth and makes it good, there are many dwelling places of rest and refreshment and right relation – and it’s God, not just we, who prepare them.
And it’s not just about church, is it? In the same way as we sometimes restrict Jesus’ promises to heaven and life after death, we also sometimes restrict our notion of holy places and holy times to church. But it’s in all of life and all the world and among and for all kinds of people – both us and our neighbours, as well as strangers and enemies, in our and their daily and ordinary life, that we find ourselves in places and ways of being together that are truly prepared and blessed by God for our healing and renewing.
It’s in our families and among our friends. Sometimes it’s at work, sometimes in what we choose for leisure and re-creation. It’s in special moments of celebration as well as in shared moments and places of sorrow and grief. It’s in movements of justice and peace, and in moments of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.
And when we live long enough we find that none of the places – none of the ways of being together with God, are ever permanent. God is not really into fixed dwellings, permanent structures, unchanging expectations and unbreakable patterns.
God is too much a journeyer for that. Jesus is too much a journeyer, too. Because life itself is a journey, and just when we might start to think of settling down – of thinking that the place that we have, the family as we’ve known it, the marriage as it’s been, the community as we’ve come to feel comfortable with it are good enough for all time just as they are, we wake up from our comfortable sleep one morning and see that God and Jesus have gone on ahead again, they are no longer with us the way they were, they have gone on to prepare a new dwelling place for us in keeping with the progress of the journey … and if we’re going to be with them, if we’re going to be among those who enjoy what they are preparing and enjoy dwelling with them, we’d better get going ourselves again too … say goodbye to where we’ve been, give thanks for it and what it gave us, and move on to where they are leading.
And we don’t need to worry. Jesus says he comes back to help us find the way. We don’t have to find the new good dwelling places all by ourselves. But we do have to follow in the way he leads.