It is the gospel lesson at the center of the United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection. John 14:1-14 is read at most, if not all, funerals in the United Methodist Church. In our tradition, it is the benchmark text on which the service is constructed. Within other Protestant traditions, John 14:1-14 holds pride of place in liturgies and services to commemorate the lives of those now worshiping in the church triumphant. Now, John’s cosmic architectural reading has arrived unannounced, after another funeral on the previous afternoon, in Sunday morning’s lectionary.
Home improvement shows are an incredibly popular form of reality television. HGTV, the home and garden television network, broadcasts dozens of shows in which people renovate, remodel, flip, resell, and enlarge their houses. These programs are enjoyable to watch. It is fun to see people with poor taste and too much money buy ugly houses in cities you’d never move too. Deep down inside, we live vicariously through these men and women with big bank loans moving to bigger houses. The idea of more space always seems nice. Moving looks like an adventure, especially when you never see the hard work and the fun is condensed into a thirty minute television show.
The desire for bigger and better seems to be programmed into our DNA. From the moment civilization began to form and humans made the transition from hunter gatherers into agriculturalists; we needed more space. The woman or man with the most space usually had the most stuff. The people with the most things and the biggest places to store their things were usually rich and important. It didn’t take long for our ancestors to make the connection. Importance and wealth are somehow tied to stuff and living space. Here’s the evolutionary news flash: that connection has never been broken. In fact, it’s reinforced each time we watch House Hunters or see a fancy new home. This reaction isn’t limited to individuals looking at homes. Pastors are forever looking at bigger, newer churches with unlimited rooms for Sunday School, Youth, and Christian Education projects. One culturally accepted marker of success as an individual or church is this: you’ve won when you’re in the big house. It doesn’t matter what the mortgage payments are, how much you pay in property tax, or how much of your soul you sold to walk through the front door. Success equals substance. In Methodism, the same holds true. If you’re in a large church with a carbon footprint the size of a small African country, you must be doing something right.
Success equates to substance. If that’s the myth, the lie, we continue to repeat ad nauseam throughout our culture, is it any surprise that John 14:1-14 holds a place of prominence in our collective understanding of life after death? No, it’s revelation at all. The illusion persists because the church, organized religion, Christianity, gives it validity each time we read these strange words.
I am troubled. Though Jesus tells me not to be, I am troubled. Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare I place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” What’s troubling about this? We live our entire lives looking for the next bigger, better thing. Here, now, at the end of our lives, John has Jesus telling us, the next big thing is just a big house, a mansion with many rooms. After all is said and done, your consumerist fantasies come true; we can become God’s roommate in a heavenly mansion. I don’t want to be crammed into a heavenly mansion with millions of other people, no matter how posh the accommodations. I don’t want God to reserve me a room and hold it on a credit card. I want to be loved by God. I need a hug, not a mansion just over the hilltop. I am not impressed by the big house or the talk of a many roomed mansion that is only approached through gates of pearl. This does nothing for me. I don’t want heaven to be a gaudy version of Earth. I would be less troubled if Jesus said, you will be with me and I will love you. Why is the simple message never enough?
Eternity shouldn’t be one more step on Earth’s crumbling ladder of misplaced priorities. Each time I read John 14:1-14, (and I’ve read it many times recently), it sounds like we’re saying, “hold on grieving mourners who live in run down trailers by the beach, God’s gone ahead of you to get your deluxe condo in the sky ready. Sit tight, salvation is a coming. Your room at the Heavenly Holiday Inn will be ready soon. Do not be troubled.” I am troubled by Jesus’ words, as recorded by John. They are misleading to those who grieve. I don’t think they are true. I am troubled by the American dream becoming heavenly reality. I’m fairly certain that’s not what Jesus intended.