Sunday, May 14, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 27:23; sermon starts around 34:30)
There is at least one thing in my life for which I do not give thanks nearly often enough. And that is my smartphone. I’d hold it up right now and show it to you for visual emphasis – but my smartphone is currently back there, working at its day job, which is live-streaming this service.
It’s an amazing tool that most of us carry around in our pockets all day, when you stop and think about it. It lets us share information and connect with people all over the world. It gives us access to virtually all human knowledge, right there at our fingertips – as well as adorable pictures of cats and babies. It enables us to open up an app like Google Maps and look up directions that will lead us straight from our front door to just about any destination we can imagine.
Now, granted, Google Maps can be a bit hit or miss in more rural areas and small towns like Schuyler. I have been trying to get Google to add that new stretch of Denver Street north of the parsonage ever since it was built – and they only just added it last week. But even despite its shortcomings, it’s still pretty amazing that you can find your way just about anywhere in the world with this little device that fits in your pocket.
I’ve gotten so used to having this little gadget to rely on that I sometimes forget what things were like before I had a smartphone. I forget what it was like to try to figure out the route to get someplace in the days before I had Google Maps or Siri literally sitting there telling me “At next corner, turn right.”
I was thinking recently about the first time I drove down to Lincoln on my own from my hometown. It’s a good two-and-a-half hour drive; and as a newly minted college freshman, I was pretty nervous about finding my way without getting lost. So my dad carefully coached me on the directions – multiple times – before I left the house: Take Highway 15 all the way down to the intersection south of Wayne. Turn left on Highway 275 and stay on it until you get to Fremont. Then get on Highway 77 and follow it all the way to Lincoln.
Easy peasy! I could handle that. So I found my way to Highway 15 and started heading down. South of Wayne, I turned on 275, no problem. I made my way through Wisner and Beemer and all those towns; and then in Fremont I got on 77 and started following it down to Lincoln, just like Dad said. It was all going along perfectly according to plan. But there was just one teeny little hiccup. You see, the last step of the directions Dad told me was to get on 77 and follow it to Lincoln. What Dad didn’t tell me was exactly when to stop following highway 77.
I didn’t know Lincoln well enough back then to recognize that I needed to keep going straight when the road I was on turned into N 56th St. All I knew was that there was a sign saying ‘Highway 77 that way’ – so I followed it! I finally pulled off and called my dad several more miles down the road. I could almost hear him shaking his head over the phone – especially as he realized that not only had I missed the street I wanted; I had actually managed to drive almost all the way around to the other side of Lincoln without even realizing it. As it turns out, teenage me did not have the best sense of direction – especially not under pressure.
In my defense, I was young and inexperienced and very anxious. And it can be downright scary sometimes trying to find your way when you don’t know exactly where you’re going – when you don’t have a smartphone chirping in your ear, telling you when to turn (or when not to turn, as the case may be). We can feel lost and anxious sometimes when we’re wandering through unfamiliar territory and there’s no one around to guide us or to show us which way to go.
These are the kinds of feelings the disciples seem to be wrestling with in our gospel reading for this morning. This passage picks up right where last week’s gospel reading ended: Jesus is in the upper room with his disciples, giving them this farewell speech on the night that he is arrested and handed over. For the disciples, everything is just happening way too fast. In a few short days, they have gone from the exhilaration of marching triumphantly into Jersualem with all these loud, joyful crowds of people – to now being faced with open hostility from their religious leaders; and then, like a minute ago, they got the shocking news that their friend Judas has betrayed them.
Jesus had told them that things would get bad. He told them plainly that he himself would be killed. And it seems like these words of his words are finally starting to sink in for the disciples. It’s becoming gut-wrenchingly clear that Jesus is about to leave them.
Earlier in this conversation, Jesus tells his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now.” But he also reassured them in our gospel reading last week, “I go to prepare a place for you… and you know the way to where I am going.” All of the disciples are anxious and on edge, but for Thomas, this is just a bridge too far. He bursts out: “We don’t know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way??” And in reply, Jesus says to him some of the best-known words of scripture: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Well, okay. But also… what does that mean? I mean, they have been following Jesus – ‘the way’ – all over Judea and Galilee and even Samaria. They have been learning from him and have built these close, loving relationships with him. But what does it mean for Jesus to be “the way” when he is no longer physically there in front of them for them to follow?
That is what Jesus seems to be addressing with what he’s saying to them here. Jesus is giving them directions for how to find the way when he is no longer physically there beside them. He says to them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It’s a statement that, on first read, comes off sounding pretty legalistic; it can even sound manipulative, like, ‘Well if you really loved me, you’d do what I tell you.’ But Jesus is teaching them to let themselves be guided by the love they have for him, and to keep on striving to live in the ways that Jesus has taught them to live.
And the way that Jesus has taught them to live is founded on love. He has told them plainly what the two most important commandments are: firstly, to love God with everything that is in them; and secondly, to love their neighbor – to love one another – as Jesus has first loved them. Absolutely everything else is built on these two commandments.
This is the guiding light that Jesus gives his disciples to help them find their way through times of upheaval and distress and uncertainty. Just keep my commandments – love God and love your neighbor, and you will find me. You will find the way.
And even beyond this, Jesus promises them that he won’t just leave them to their own devices as they seek to follow the way. Jesus isn’t about to leave them wandering the spiritual equivalent of Highway 77 with no idea where to go. Jesus will send to them the Advocate – the Holy Spirit – to be their guide, to remind them of all that Jesus taught them, and to help them see within themselves that God has already given them everything they need.
These guiding lights of love and Spirit continue to guide Jesus’ followers to this day. They are what guides us, gifts that help us to find our way when we’re faced with times of upheaval and distress and uncertainty.
They help us find our way when we’re faced with times like the present, when change is happening all over the place and we’re left feeling confused and even a bit scared. So much seems to be happening so fast – meetings and conversations with other congregations about coming together in ministry, pastors unexpectedly leaving, uncertainty about what the future of this congregation will look like. Right now, there is a big bend in the road in front of us that is making it impossible to see much of the way forward. We can see that there are signs and arrows and stuff up ahead, but we’re just not quite close enough yet to be able to make out what they say.
But we keep going. We keep following this road, just like Jesus said. We keep following his commandments to love God and to love one another as best we can. We keep on letting love lead us into the future one step at a time.
And we give thanks, knowing that Jesus loves us and that he has promised not to leave us orphaned. He has left us with a guide – one that beats the heck out of any smartphone or app. We may not have any idea yet exactly where it is we’re going. But thanks to the love of Christ, we do know the way.