"When Our Understanding Is Limited”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – May 18, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; John 14:1-14


    Our Gospel lesson this morning is important for those of us who continue to climb the chronological ladder of the aging process.  Jesus used the occasion of his last supper with his disciples to explain in the simplest of terms what will happen to them when they die.  He said, “There are many levels of existence where my Father dwells and I am going to prepare a place for you so that we will be together when it is your time to leave this world.  I would not tell you this if it were not true.” (John 14:2)

    The disciples heard these words but they did not understand their meaning.  In fact, what Jesus said evoked even more questions from them.  While we are curious about what happens when we leave this world, we would prefer to stay here for as long as we can.  We are much like a fetus that grows anxious when the contractions of the mother begin.  We are forced to travel down a narrow tunnel as we enter a world completely different from the one to which we had grown accustomed.

    In my previous church, a group was founded by three men that were cancer survivors at the time.  They found quality fellowship in getting together and talking about matters of spirit.  After the founders eventually graduated from this life, the group continued and became known as The Angel Gang. This group not only meets for support, but the men and women that gather find it a lot of fun. There is no planned program for each meeting. 

    One of the founders of the group could talk about his faith very well. However, when his time came to leave this world, he found that it was very difficult to let go.  I sat with him in the hospital as he fought to stay alive.  His eyes were wild.  The tube in his mouth prevented him from speaking. I asked him questions and he responded by blinking his eyes once for “yes” and twice for “no.”

    Even though Don struggled mightily to stay in this world, when the last grains of sand fell into the lower chamber of his hour glass, he left this life and entered the realm that Jesus had described for his disciples.  Most of us have a tendency to stay with what we know rather than enter into unchartered waters with great enthusiasm.  This fear is what made Don struggle to cling to what he knew.  

     One of the marvelous aspects of God’s creation is that it does not depend on anything from us for it to be what it is.  Our beliefs, our theories, our primitive understanding of God, or our naïve concepts of salvation cannot influence what God has created. The only thing that can be influenced by such things is our relationship to what has been created.

    Our physical birth happens in the same manner.  Nothing is needed but a nine month gestation period for each fertilized ovum.  Birth happens.  The only way anyone can arrive in this world is through a female’s body.  So it is with God’s created order for human life.  It remains undisturbed by our relationship to it and unfolds automatically in the lives of each of us. 

    I clipped an article from a magazine that illustrates what happens to most of us when we enter an adventure we have never experienced.  Myrtle Hockensack was 78 when she learned that her son had been in a car accident in California.  She lived in New Jersey.  She wanted to go to his bedside as soon as possible.  However, she had an all consuming fear of flying and had never been in an airplane.  She tearfully learned that she had no other choice.

    During the boarding process, she shook uncontrollably as wave after wave of panic traveled through her body.  Myrtle was determined to overcome the grip that fear had over her life.  She was a woman of faith.  Her son might need her and this invisible bogeyman she had created would not stand in her way.  Her physical condition continued to deteriorate when the aircraft vibrated as it was gathering speed for its lift off.  Her heart rate became very rapid when she heard the noise created when the airplane’s wheels were being raised into its fuselage.

    Myrtle’s pulse returned to normal and her breathing pattern stabilized when the aircraft reached cruising altitude.  She was slowly learning to trust something that she did not understand. 

    Her story does not end with her being triumphant over her fear.  Not only did Myrtle eventually become fond of flying, she graduated to something more challenging.  On her 86th birthday, Myrtle Hockensack made her 27th jump from an aircraft.  She loved to parachute as long as she was strapped to an expert guide. 

     Myrtle had been living on a level of awareness that was governed by fear, by her limiting beliefs and by having very little trust in something of which she had no experience.  When she graduated to another level of understanding, she experienced what Jesus was telling his disciples -- “Do not be worried or upset, believe in God and believe in me.”  (John 14:1) 

    Jesus’ words must have sounded like what well-meaning people say to each other during fragile moments. “Don’t worry! You will adjust to your husband’s death. One day you will meet someone that will fill your vacuum.”  “When you go for your surgery, trust God for the outcome.  You will be fine. Face your surgery with total confidence!”   Logic and faith sometimes appear like infants standing up to the giant we have created with our fears.

    Jesus words to his disciples reflected his understanding that God was his expert guide.  Now, Jesus is our guide into a realm that allows us to break free from our cocoons of safety so that we can fly in total trust on the winds of spirit that delight to lift us above all obstacles.  We can live this way every day when we know that the Master graduated from this life with complete confidence that he would arrive on the other side as whole as he was here.

    A terminally-ill patient was emotionally distraught when he received the news that his time on earth was much shorter than he had anticipated.  His doctor had just spent time with him after delivering a well-informed prognosis that was bleak. There was nothing more that the medical community could do for him but to make him feel comfortable.

    As his doctor was preparing to leave the examining room, the patient said,   “Doctor, I am afraid to die.  From your vast experience with patients like me, tell me what lies on the other side of this life?”  The doctor returned to his bedside and said, “I don’t know.” He looked surprised and responded, “You don’t know?  You are a Christian and you really don’t know what is on the other side?  What does your faith tell you?”   

    The doctor walked over to the door and put his hand on the door knob.  As he did so, both men heard the sounds of scratching that were coming from the other side of the door.  The doctor opened the door and in bounded his dog that repeatedly leaped up on the doctor as though he had found his long, lost friend.   

    Turning to his long-time friend the doctor said,

Did you notice my dog’s lack of fear?  Jessie has never been in this room.  He had no idea what was on the other side of this door except one thing.  He knew that I was in here.  I know very little about what happens to us when we leave our bodies, but I do know one thing for sure.  I know my Master will be there and that is all I need to know.  He told us to follow him and that is exactly what I intend to do.

     When our understanding is limited, there is something inside of us that knows that there is much more in our future.  Absolutely no one can put a period at the end of our current understanding.  In every discipline on our planet, humankind keeps pushing, prodding and turning over stones until the horizons of what we know expand.  Something is driving us to increase our understanding about everything.  We are wired to explore our reality.  Our learning has more to do with our imagination than anything else.  The driver is the angel within us.

    Jesus was unsuccessful with his words in equipping his disciples to understand where they were going after this life.  His words only confused them because there are some areas of life where our understanding does not exist.  Jesus knew this even as he tried to prepare his disciples for his own death. (John 16:12f)

    We will not know what lies on the other side until that door opens for us and like the dog, we will enter a realm that we have never visited. What the disciples did hear is that there are many levels of awareness in God’s created order and Jesus was going to prepare a place for them.  That is all they needed to know.  The rest of the story lies beyond our comprehension.

    The poet Henry Van Dyke once wrote:

I am standing upon the seashore.  A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.  She is an object of beauty and strength.  I stand and watch her until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. 


Then someone at my side says:  There, she is gone!” Gone where?  Gone from my sight, that is all.  She is just as large in mast, hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.  Her diminished size is in me, not in her.  And just at the moment when someone at my side says:  “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:  Here she comes!”  This is what it is like to die.

    Van Dyke has captured the meaning of Jesus’ words to his disciples and to all future generations.  Jesus asked people to follow him into the next realm without worry and fear.  He wanted us to have confidence that there is nothing in God’s created order of which we ever need to be afraid.  Fear only comes from our lack of experience and understanding.  If we knew positively what happens when we leave this life, there would be no need for faith and trust.