A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 7, 2023 (Easter 5A)
“Are there Froot Loops in heaven?” I was once asked this by a young child whose grandfather had just died. We were talking about Jesus and heaven and what happens when someone dies, and that was one of his questions for me. “Are there Froot Loops in heaven?”
Of course, he was really asking whether there were things that would be familiar and comforting amid all of the uncertainty of this transitory life. In his own way, he was giving voice to questions that we all ponder, at least occasionally: is there life after death and, if so, what does it look like? My answer to his question was “Absolutely, there are Froot Loops in heaven.” And baseball and hugs and dogs and anything else you love. I make no apologies that my answers to questions about the kingdom of heaven are generally one big “Yes.” It will be more than we could ever ask for or imagine, because in it we will abide with Jesus. That’s the promise upon which all our hopes are founded. The promise laid out by Jesus himself.
This morning in John’s gospel, we get that well-known passage, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Well, we heard “dwelling places,” not “mansions,” But for many of us, it’s hard not to hear the more majestic King James Version ringing in our heads. This passage is often read at funerals, offering a word of hope amid the chances and changes of life. Along with the knowledge that through the resurrection, Jesus himself has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. But Bible translations are funny things; a word or two can completely change how we perceive and understand what Jesus is saying.
At one level, I’ve always liked “mansions,” because for me it connects with heaven as that place of true abundance, a place where Froot Loops and perhaps even caviar are served on demand. In comparison, “dwelling places” seems rather pedestrian. Like a studio apartment or a college dorm room.
But actually, neither “mansions” nor “dwelling places” really get at what Jesus is talking about here. Heaven is not some version of Ocean Boulevard in the sky. Nor is it simply a utilitarian place where we’re housed for eternity. The better translation of the Greek word is “abode.” Not because it’s a physical place where we live, but because in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus abides with us and we abide in him.
That’s the point. That’s why heaven is one big “Yes.” Because Jesus abides in us and we in him. And it is that abiding presence of Jesus, that connection with our Lord, that marks our celebration of his resurrection throughout this 50-day season of Easter.
You know, the first week of May has become known as Star Wars Week in popular culture. It all began a number of years ago when someone realized that May the fourth had a certain ring to it. And so on Thursday many people were greeted with “May the Fourth be with you.” The answer for Episcopalians is, of course, “And also with you.”
But in a very real way this passage from John, like the first Star Wars movie — not the 1977 original, mind you, but the first one in the sequence — is a prequel. Throughout this Easter season we’ve been hearing a series of post-Resurrection appearances. Doubting Thomas, the road to Emmaus. And now we go back to Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, as he offers his disciples encouragement for the time, in the very near future, when he will no longer physically be with them. Not even the impending crucifixion can break this connection between Lord and disciple. Jesus is reminding them that he abides with them no matter what, both in this world and the next. And that he is going to prepare a place for them where they will be united for all eternity. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. This is the abiding promise of relationship, the abiding promise of connection, the abiding promise of faith in Jesus Christ that is freely offered to each and every one of us. And it is a marvelous and joyful thing.
The other thing that happened during this Star Wars Week, besides my wanting to show a Star Wars movie out in the courtyard and call it Darth on the Garth, is that the Surgeon General released a report on the epidemic of loneliness that has taken hold of our country. It was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic, but its roots are deeper than that. Our relationship with and reliance on technology, the decline of social groups like faith communities, the rapid pace of change in our lives, as well as our country’s fetishization of the values of rugged individualism and self-reliance. But the upshot is that so many among us are quietly suffering. And this epidemic of loneliness crosses all boundaries of race and age and economic status. We are isolated and disconnected, and it’s impacting our collective mental and physical health.
And, as the Surgeon General put it, “you can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections.” Which means you can feel lonely even sitting in church or attending a social gathering.
One of the ways we can counteract this epidemic of loneliness is by creating a culture of quality connections. And that is where the church in general, and Bethesda in particular, can have a huge and very practical impact on society. Connection is what people seek and connection is ultimately what we have to offer. Connection with Jesus, connection with one another. If you are feeling isolated or lonely, please do reach out to us. We want to get you connected at Bethesda. We want to be a place that facilitates and encourages deep and meaningful connections. We want to be a place that creates space and opportunities for people to move beyond superficial cocktail party conversation to creating profound connections based on authentic relationships. We are already doing that, and we hope to do more of it in the coming years. Because we all crave and need connection.
Last Sunday I sat in on our confirmation class and, in between enjoying a wide-ranging conversation about belief, we talked about what it means to be religious. And I shared with our confirmands that embedded within the word ‘religion’ is the root for the word ‘ligament’ — that’s the ‘lig’ in the middle of the word. And so religion itself is about being connected. Not connecting bone to bone, but connecting us to God and one another. We talked about how Jesus called the disciples not to follow him in isolation but he called them into a community. And I love that. Because it is all about connection.
Okay, we’ve gone from Froot Loops to Star Wars to loneliness to confirmation class this morning. But the connective tissue here is the importance of connection. Our connection with Jesus and our connection with one another. Jesus abides with us and encourages us to abide with one another. That’s the important stuff of life. Connection is what offers hope and gives life meaning. And I encourage you to seek out connections in your life, to cherish them, and to allow them to bring you ever closer to the very heart of God.