When I was in second grade, a man from the government showed a film at the Parent Teacher’s Association, the PTA at Pecan Park Elementary School, where I attended. It was about a kid who was pretty smart, and pretty healthy, and pretty happy. But he kept falling behind in his reading. He wrote his lowercase e’s backward , as well as his b’s and d’s. And he couldn’t catch a ball to save his life. The film was about learning disabilities.
My mother saw me in that film. When that sort of thing happens, a kind of chaos comes down. Things feel like they are coming apart. Here are two things she did not do. She did not say to herself “Oh, my precious little son couldn’t possibly have a learning disability. He is so wonderful and unique and perfect in every way,” and stay silent in her seat. Also, she did not say “What will people think if they find out my son has a learning disability? Maybe they will think there’s something wrong with us,” and stay silent in her seat.
No. My mother trusted that God was with her, that her dignity and my dignity came from God, and nowhere else, and that therefore she was a slave to neither pride nor shame. So as soon as the film was over, she marched right up to the man from the government and said, “That was my son up there on that screen. Now, what do I do?”
Well, after some reading testes and some tests with different kinds of puzzles, it was determined that I should continue to take piano lessons. And I was to double down on the second worst school subject of all time, namely, phonics. In phonics you learn the sounds that the different letters make, like, “s, t” makes a “st” sound and a “t,h” makes a “Th” sound. It was so much easier and more sensible to memorize what the word looks like and associate that with its meaning. So the letters “C-a-t” they represent “Cat.” The letters “b-a-l-l” represent “ball.”
Phonics is second only to the worst school subject of all time: Spelling. Spelling should be banished.
In addition to all of this I also had to lay down on our living room floor and do certain exercises: lift my right arm halfway up. Lift my left leg all the way up, and so on. My mother would get down on the floor with me every night. She would say “Come on, Andy it’s time to do the exercises. Sometimes my dad joined us.
With the result that I was never ashamed of having a learning disability. I never felt like there was anything wrong with me, particularly. It was just a thing. A thing we dealt with, but a thing.
Far more important in my mind, far more influential was that my mother got down on the floor with me to do my exercises. It was a time for us to be together, to be connected. And that togetherness, that connection made all the difference in the world.
That’s what God is like.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is giving his farewell address to his disciples. He knows that he is about to be unjustly arrested and brutally murdered. He is trying to get his disciples ready, because they expect everything to be easy. They expect God to make everything okay. And God’s not going to.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. The Greek word is Tarasso. “Do not let your hearts be tossed about, flung to and fro. To not be terrified.” Even if chaos comes down. Even if everything comes apart, trust God, and trust me.
Sometimes when things come apart, we feel like God is not with us, like God has abandoned us, or maybe doesn’t care. We think that because God does not make things all better, God must not exist at all.”
Jesus says, “Trust me. Trust God.”
He says, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places, many rooms, many mansions,” as the old translations used to say. Many places where God and you and I can be together. Many places, many ways where we can be family, connected, loved.
Jesus says, “If I go to 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.” He says, “You know the way where I am going.” Thomas, always the practical one, says “Um, Jesus, actually we don’t know the way. Would that be a right turn or a left turn coming out of the parking lot onto Breckenridge Lane?”
Jesus says something that has sometimes been taken out of its literary context in the Gospel of John and out of its historical context in the church of the late first, early second century. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
People have lifted this passage out of its context and used it as a kind of weapon. People have said ‘Look at what the Bible says, no one comes to God except through Jesus. That means we’re the greatest, we Christians. We are the greatest religion in the world. We are the best. We are superior. We should have special privileges. We are entitled, because we’re the best.”
This passage was written at a time when Christianity was not a major world religion duking it out with Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam and all those other big players. It was a tiny community that had just been thrown out of Judaism and they had been expecting Jesus to come back soon and he wasn’t coming back soon and they felt like everything was coming apart and they were really scared.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust me.”
This passage is not a claim to superiority or to entitlement. It is a claim to truth. If you want to find out what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to feel close to God, follow Jesus, walk the way of the cross. “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me,” says Jesus.
In the midst of chaos, God is with us. God became one of us and suffered with us and died for us in order to bring life to the world. That’s what we’re saying.
Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and in fact, will do greater works than these.”
So in the midst of a crazy world, you and I suffer for others, even for sinners. We might sacrifice for them. Some of us might even die for them, like Jesus died for us, because that’s the way God is.
My mother was very proud of me when I began to read in earnest, and began to be able to learn. And yet she still sat with me for hours and hours doing math homework at night, keeping all those columns of numbers straight while multiplying 547 by 398, or dividing 2,863 by 197. My father still took the time to show me how to tie a fishhook to a strand of fishing line, even though I forgot again, pretty much right away.
My parents sacrificed for me. I sacrifice for others, we sacrifice for the world, because God sacrificed for us, because God is with us. It’s what we do.