We’re in John 14:2-6, the very beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus informs the Disciples that he’s leaving soon, to prepare a place for them. He promises to return so that he might travel with them back to that place. He wraps up the surprising news with a word of confidence, “It’s a good thing you all know how to get to the place where I’m going”.
“Um”, Thomas says, “I’m pretty sure that none of us know how to get to the place you’re talking about. How could we when you haven’t given us the address?” Thomas’ response reminds me of something Yogi Berra once said, “You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Sounds about right.
About 15 years ago, a group of folks at Tabernacle were standing together around carousel #4, in the baggage claim area at RIC. Back in those days it wasn’t uncommon to find a group of us standing in that space, often well after midnight. The vast majority of us had only travelled the short distance from our front door to the Richmond airport. However, the familiy of five that we greeted on this particular evening travelled a much greater distance, first fleeing for their lives from the Burmese Army and more recently on a 72+ hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to Richmond, Virginia.
It took less than twenty seconds for the baggage handlers to place the family’s earthly possessions onto the carousel. Everything that family owned fit into one small suitcase and two plastic bags. Back in those days, there wasn’t a single identified interpreter in Richmond that could speak both English and Burmese. Fortunately, some of the members of our expanding greeting party included brothers and sisters from the Karen ethnic group. All of them were refugees and most of them had been greeted at the airport, only a few short weeks ago, by the very people they were now guiding in the welcoming of others.
Not even the case worker could understand the words that were exchanged and none of the greeters spoke enough English to interpret their own words back to us. It mattered not, the native English speakers didn’t need to understand the specific words in order to understand what was being conveyed. The visual expression on the exhausted faces of those two parents interpreted the message they had received: words of hope, words of comfort, words of welcome. The limitations of language cannot conceal a peace that surpasses all understanding. By the grace of God they had found the way and in the mysterious movement of the Spirit we were all being transformed.
Back in a different day, I used to read the 13th and 14th chapters of John‘s Gospel differently. When Jesus tells the Disciples that he is The Way, I made assumptions that haven’t stood the test of time. Back then, I was more of a literalist and believed that Jesus’ words validated a viewpoint of exclusivity. I used to interpret Jesus’ words, “you know the way to the place I am going” to validate assumptions that haven’t held true in the long journey of faith. Had GPS technology existed back in the day, I would likely have used it as a metaphor for a Biblical worldview, “The Bible provides the turn-by-turn directions anyone needs to find their way. It’s as simple as believing the literal words and genuinely praying for those that don’t have the wisdom to do the same.” Humility, ushered in through my failure along the way and the unmerited grace that has been offered, has changed my thinking.
In hindsight, as I look back to those midnight encounters in baggage claim, the focal point of the memories no longer center on a group of strangers creatively communicating “welcome” through smiles, hand gestures, and helpfulness. The great truth of the memories no longer resides with a group of refugees finding their way to a new home and a circle of strangers helping them make a place to call home. That interpretation of the story is oversimplified and hasn’t stood the test of time. Humility, gratitude, grief, and grace have changed my thinking. These days, as I look back and remember, the first thing I see is the face of Jesus, bringing a group of people together in the cover of darkness, ALL of them refugees, ALL of them needing to find their place again. Some of them were certainly more aware of the need than others. Regardless, he knew what we needed and he made a way. Was it messy? Absolutely. Were we pretty confused? Absolutely. Did scripture validate and educate us in how to walk differently? Absolutely. Did the Spirit continually surprise us as we walked with Jesus together? No doubt about it.
In these days of confusion, grief, and weariness, we’re finding hope in our remembering. We’re finding resilience in the sacred stories of our forebearers and even in the recollection of our sacred memories . We’re also really struggling with connection with one another and the world around us. I’m guessing that a lot of us find ourselves standing in the place where Thomas once stood. It’s a familiar place, this place of lostness. Disciples of Jesus are supposed to know the way but we can’t seem to find it.
With apologies to Yogi, you’ve got to be careful you don’t assume you know where you’re going, because you may actually get there….only to find it’s not the place you thought it would be. Your way, my way, our way, will never lead us to the place we long to be. The memories shared in scripture, and the sacred stories we’ve experienced in our own lives, all point to the place Jesus speaks of. He calls that place the Kingdom of God.
Our thoughts on exclusivity and certainty have not stood the test of time. However, the same can’t be said of our Savior. His nature is revealed in scripture. His love is evident in our messy stories and his Mission continues to unfold through the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit.
What revelations await for the refugees, one and all? Will we find our place again? According to the Gospel of John…..there is one WAY to find out.