By Rev. Joan Kessler
John 14:1 – 14
Earlier this week, Canada and the world mourned the news of the death of Gordon Lightfoot. There was a collective kind of grief over a day or so where we just stopped what we were doing and remembered what his music has meant to us. Sundown is my favorite Lightfoot piece. “Sundown, you better take care if I find you’ve creepin’ round my back stairs…” Lightfoot wrote this song at sundown one evening as he was worried about his girlfriend, Cathy Smith, who led a fast life and was involved with the wrong crowd. So, there is more than a hint of jealousy and paranoia in this song. I’ll leave it to you to look up more about this notorious girlfriend in your leisure time. I learned that Lightfoot led a very colorful life also – married three times, had 6 children, and battled his own addictions.
I am grateful for the reflection one of you shared with me on Lightfoot and I spent a lot of time ruminating over it the past week. It was a line from his most famous song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” This song tells the story of the Great Lakes iron freighter that set out from Superior, WS carrying 26,000 tonnes of ore destined for Detroit. Back in the day, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on Lake Superior, only 100 feet shorter than the Titanic. It had been making this route across the Great Lake since 1958 but on November 10, 1975, she would make her last. For just around 7 o’clock in the evening, a mighty storm with hurricane-force winds overtook the crew of 29. The last radio transmission came at 7:10 pm to another freighter about 10 miles behind with the last words, “We are holding our own”. However, conditions deteriorated quickly and there was no time to send out a distress call. Moments after the last transmission, the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from radar and the vessel and her crew made the long descent to the bottom, where she still rests today. Only her bell was recovered. On the 20th anniversary of the sinking a new bell was inscribed with the names of her crew, all who perished that fateful November night.
This story and Lightfoot’s haunting melody, give me goosebumps. Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? It’s a good question. Because it asks what are we to do with suffering and disappointment. And there are lots of ways to answer this question but this lyric compels us to answer it for ourselves, based on our experiences, our relationships and our hopes. Was this the question on the hearts and minds of those who awaited word of the crew’s fate on the Edmund Fitzgerald. Did they shiver together on the shore straining that cold November night to see signs of their loved ones coming home… did they ask, “Where are you now God?”
Our good question from Gordon Lightfoot also hangs over our gospel reading for today. This passage is what we consider Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. It is full of words that bring sadness and disappointment. Jesus wanted to have conversation with his beloveds about his death and the reality he had already accepted: that he will not leave Jerusalem alive. He wants to talk to them about important things, final things, that lead to new things and new beginnings.
Jesus has finished a last supper with his disciples where they broke bread and shared the cup… he has washed their feet and given them a new commandment. He says, Love one another as I have loved you. He has predicted his death and forthcoming betrayal and abandonment. And so, he tells them plainly, I am going away from you and where I am going you cannot follow. The words sting at tender moment. This group has given up everything to follow him, they have done all this work together, and they have arrived at Jerusalem for the Passover and how can this be? How can Jesus be leaving without them? He is supposed to be the messiah, the one they believed would deliver them and restore the house of Israel. And some of them are asking questions of Jesus… they have a right to. Where are we to go now? What is to become of us? Is there a map for us to follow so we can come and find you and keep together?
Often, we hear Jesus’ words as a scolding, as a lecture on who is in and who is out. It is this speech from John’s gospel that I think causes us in liberal and progressive communities to have a distaste for doctrine and dogma. It can be heard as words that exclude and limit rather than include and expand. But if we take a moment to hear the compassion and the care Jesus has for his friends, those same friends he reminded to love one another as he has loved them. On one level he is telling them he is about to leave them. His imminent departure is not about abandonment but rather a change that will make way for an even deeper intimacy – “And don’t worry about knowing the way because I am the map”. And he tells them that they already know the way because they have been in relationship all this time and they know what they need to know to carry forward because his values will live on within them. When you love one another as I have loved you, Jesus says, we will be always be together in our hearts and the spirit of your ongoing work.
What makes John’s gospel so different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that this gospel is all about what Jesus has to say rather than what Jesus does. And the Jesus of John’s gospel is all about revelation of who he is. Right from the beginning, the word was with God and was God. There was no separation. And this cosmic, expansive Christ we have come to know is describing his death in ways that make Jesus out to be better than anybody else. I wonder though. If we look at the big picture of John’s story, Jesus is a Revealer. He comes from God and he reveals God. The Way he speaks of himself in the farewell discourse is not a roadmap to follow but a way of being in relationship. Jesus is the embodiment of a flourishing and abundant life, from God and the earth, for all creation, no separation. The Way is Truth. The Way is Life.
Yesterday, following Muriel’s funeral, Tom, Mike, and I went to the park to scatter Muriel’s cremains and we shared in the words from 1 Corinthians 13. We were reminded that earthly life comes to an end for all of us. But Love never ends. “The Way” Jesus speaks of is an invitation to new life transformed because of relationships we have with the Christ that never ends, never ceases to enliven and commune and bring together. And this invitation was not meant for some and not others; the future of communities of faith is to reimagine the things that separate us and find what unites us rather than divides us.
Does anyone know where the love of God goes? What is our answer to this good question? I don’t believe it is ever fully answered. It is like a beauty and a disappointment that are intertwined and inseparable. Yet this question pursues us, and we all come to a point in life, a tragedy, a change or transition, that we ask where is the love of God now? Perhaps Love goes down with the ship. Could this be the way, the truth, the life Jesus was alluding to that night in an upper room? Down in the depths of our despair, God is there. Love is already there. May it be so and Amen.