When many of us hear the first seven verses of this scripture reading, we are often doubled over in grief at the death of a loved one. It offers consolation to us as we imagine our loved one cared for and safe in one of heaven’s many dwelling places. As the old hymn says:
There’s a land that is fairer than day
And by faith we can see it afar
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.
In the sweet by and by we shall meet on that beautiful shore.
On this Memorial Day, we imagine our loved ones who have gone on before. We remember the people who have fallen on the field of battle. We remember the veterans and the continued struggle with the fallout of combat. We remember and we seek to hold accountable elected officials who cut funding to the VA and then criticize it for doing subpar work. So how would you honor those who have gone before? What will be your witness to their legacy?
My colleague Ann Keeler Evans penned this poem in today’s blog:
Living La Vida Local May 25, 2014
We are called to remember
All those who have died in war after war.
We must read their names to muffled drumbeats.
It’s too painful to remember, we often say,
To look directly at the long lists of war dead.
Too many your men—and women—gone.
Governments make wars for their own reasons,
Wars that rarely lead to Peace,
And send these young heroes into harm’s way
Without demanding meaningful sacrifice of others.
We must honor those deaths.
We must cry out against the till in life and civilization.
And then we must create a world
Where our work, and that of the valiant, is for Peace.
Jesus begins where we begin. Troubled hearts. Most of us come here with memories of troubled hearts. We have lost a loved one. We have a loved one who is suffering. The future is unknown and we are not on our best footing. Our hearts are troubled. Jesus tells us not to be troubled. But those are just words. How can we not be troubled? Even the assurance is not enough.
The disciples receive no balm in Jesus’ words. Just more confusion. How do we know where you’re going? Could you be more specific, please? Do not let your hearts be troubled? Are you serious? Our whole world is about to come crashing down.
There are no magic words that can heal a grieving heart. Especially when they are in the throes of grief. Jesus promises that there will be an ongoing relationship that is not severed by death. You may not understand it now, but you will a bit later. We often fill the grief time with words and they are not always helpful. We just don’t know what to do or say and we’re uncomfortable with discomfort. What we can do at best is be present with another, gently comfort them and patiently point them toward the future.
I find comfort in the thought of my loved ones waiting for me in the great beyond in one of the many rooms. How do you imagine that place? The King James Version says there are many mansions. Many mansions reminds me of a suburban development, which doesn’t seem like heaven to me. The new Revised Standard Version says there are many dwelling places, which seems a bit generic to me. The New International Version says many rooms, which seems a bit easier to understand. And yet we ought not to take it too literally.
I’m reminded of the story about St. Peter greeting the newest initiates into heaven. They walk through the pearly gates. They pass many rooms. One room is somber and you hear chanting. St. Peter says, “that’s the Monastic heaven”. At the entrance to another room they hear singing and dancing. St. Peter says, “that’s the Greek heaven.” Then there is another room and the curry smells wonderful and the music of sitars fills the halls. St. Peter says “that’s the Hindu heaven.” Then there is loud singing at another room. St. Peter says, “that’s the Methodist heaven.” And on and on they go with St. Peter describing the array of people and faith traditions in the many rooms of heaven. But he tells them to be very quiet as they pass the next room. When they get out of earshot, the new initiates ask, “why did we have to stay quiet as we passed that room?” St. Peter replied, “That’s the Southern Baptist heaven. They still think they’re the only ones here.”
As you imagine heaven, what does it look like? Does it look kinda like a villa or a cluster of dwellings. Maybe cabins up on a lake, each with their own fire pit and kitchen and dock, of course. Maybe a mirror of your favorite place on earth, held in comfort for eternity.
Think of the many rooms we have in our lives. Rooms in our homes. Each room has its purpose, it’s function. There’s a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom. There are different things that happen in those rooms. Then there are rooms at the places we work. Rooms where we go to school. Rooms even in this church. We even take on different roles depending on which room we enter. Think of the rooms that are open to everyone and those for the exclusive use of a family or clan or club. Which rooms are safe, which ones are not? Which one looks like heaven to you? Fix your image on that.
Many rooms does not necessarily mean many single rooms. It means an abundance of places for us all to dwell.
The work of Christians is not only to assure our place in one of the many rooms of heaven, but also to question the distribution of rooms here on earth. Many of us live int homes with many rooms. We don’t use all of them, but we need places to put our stuff. When we visited our Nicaraguan sister church, we were given the best rooms in their homes. Sometimes those rooms were just portions of other rooms. We recognized the disparity between our many room and their few rooms.
Rooms in this very neighborhood are increasing. In the fall, there will be several hundred more rooms. Most are starting at $600/month. That’s not a single. That’s a room in a suite shared by three or four other people. Folks who can’t afford that, where are they going? To a rented house in Como that has not been kept up well? There are many rooms in Dinkytown. Are they open to all? Would our message be good news to them?
We are a church of many rooms. I know because Sheila and I manage about 60 different keys. The architects of this great old building put these many rooms here to be used by the community, to be a resource for healing and hope. It was never built nor has it ever existed as a private chapel. I think what we try to model here is te welcome and the beauty of God’s manifold witness. For in each of these rooms, we find a mini-sanctuary in which to build on the common purpose of recognizing God’s people. In the many rooms of this building, we dream, we advocate, we pray, awe celebrate, awe try on the architecture of heaven’s many rooms.
And we remember. On this Memorial Day, we remember that our country was founded on the backs of slaves labor. An original sin from which we still have not fully come to terms. Here’s a nugget of history that I never knew until this week about the origins of Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, former slaves in Charleston, SC dug up the bodies of 257 dead Union Soldiers who were buried in a mass grave in Confederate prison camp. They worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial, decorating their graves and gathering their community. They held a parade for 10,000 people led by 2,800 black children. They celebrated the end of the war and the sacrifices of the Union soldiers who worked to eradicate slavery.
And the irony is that a hundred and fifty years later we are just now coming to terms with the fact that we still exclude people from certain rooms because of the color of their skin. Oh, we don’t talk about it that way. We talk about safety and law enforcement. And the rooms of a prison cell are the home to too many of our African-American sisters and brothers.
When I think of the many rooms that Jesus promises, I think of all the people who have dwelt on earth. I think of those with whom we have not reconciled. What about them? What is our relationship with them in the great beyond? Do I take my resentment even beyond the grave?
I imagine all of the hardships and difficulties we endured in this life are erased or reconciled in that great many-roomed dwelling.
I imagine racism and sexism and religious difference and political posturing all melting away in that great beyond. I imagine bullies being broken children who have come into their right minds by the miracle of God. I imagine former victims claiming their power and no longer being defined by a hurt or an injustice. And I imagine that the God who dwells in that many-roomed villa has the power to redeem and liberate and reconcile all that we could not do here on earth. And I find that to be good news.
And I wonder if we need to wait until we die to find it. Maybe there is some work we need to do on this side of heaven to prepare those many rooms in which we seek to dwell. And that’s why we come to church, to enter into these many rooms and try on the mantle of God, where we dare to dream of a people reconciled, an environment preserved and a future that encompasses beauty and joy.
Jesus has gone on to prepare a room for us. Actually many rooms. We don’t all have to be in the same one. We don’t all have to look and act exactly alike. What we do need to do is to honor the lives of those who have gone before. We need to honor them and make them ready for not only our presence, but the presence of our sisters and brothers. How will you honor and prepare the many rooms here on earth?
On this Memorial Day, remember those who have gone on before. Imagine them in the many rooms of heaven. Remember those in the military. Remember the peace warriors. But also imagine the world we do to make the many rooms of our world safe, healing and redemptive. It’s part and parcel of the heavenly design.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The way of Jesus is a way of peace. The truth of the Gospel is that justice paves the way for peace. The life of the Christian is to imagine and work for a God-consciousness that reconciles the world and ensures justice and peace.
Don’t just focus on that here in this room. Make your life a witness to the Gospel in the many rooms here on this earth. And those in the many rooms of heaven will smile down on you, saying “Well done, good and faithful servant. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me. In my house there are many rooms.” And just as Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, we prepare a place for healing and hope in the many rooms of this world.