In this morning’s gospel, Thomas asks a universal question. “How can we know the way?” There are many variations on the same theme, like “What am I supposed to do?” or “Where am I supposed to go from here?”
These are the kinds of questions that many are asking during this graduation season. They are also the questions we ask when we are in relationships that are failing and we see no way forward. How can we know the way?
These are the questions asked when careers are truncated or when they have stalled. What am I supposed to do? These are the questions we ask when your father is an alcoholic and keeps relapsing. These are the questions we ask when your adult child just cannot get it together and needs money again. Where am I supposed to go from here?
When you are in a place where these questions surface, the standard graduation answers just do not cut the mustard. “Following your heart” or “finding your passion” do not sufficiently address the level of your lostness or the depth of your need. So, what are we to do? How can we know the way?
Writer Francis Spufford recounts his own “how can we know the way” moment. He had been up all night fighting with his wife – “one of those cyclical rows that reignite every time you think they’ve come to an exhausted close, because the thing that’s wrong won’t be left alone, won’t stay out of sight if you try to turn away from it. Intimacy had turned toxic: we knew, as we went around and around and around in it, almost exactly what the other one was going to say, and even what they were going to think, and it only made things worse. When daylight came, the whole world seemed worn out.” I bet you’ve been there, too, in one way or another. Even if you are just arguing with yourself!
The place to begin is not first with the answer, but a few steps back. Thomas precedes his question with a confession of ignorance, saying, “We do not know.”
Confessing that you do not know is a very good place to start when you are lost.
When Christie and I were first married we went on a backpacking honeymoon through Europe. We decided to walk/hitchhike from the Italian country house we were staying in to Assisi. The distance was about 20 miles and crisscrossed farms and villages and major highways.
This was way before smart phones or GPS’s, and of course we were soon completely lost. The sane thing to do was to take out our Italian-English dictionary and ask somebody for directions. But, as we all know, men do not ask directions, because they know the way. Men do not not know the way. Men know the way and they impress their young wives.
This man did not know the way, nor did he ask directions. And consequently he did not impress his young wife. In fact, he got into a terrible, angry, sulking argument with his wife, even though it was his birthday, which made everything worse. We sure could have used the prayer of St. Francis then. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. When there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon.” Maybe somebody was praying for us, because finally, hours and hours later, a kind nun stopped on the side of the road to pick us up and took us up the mountain to Assisi.
How can we know the way? It is a question that is asked all through life, and not just in marital arguments. It is a question you are asking this morning about something in your life, or someone in your life, or some absence in your life.
For those of us facing a fork in the road, how can we know the way? For those of at the end of the road, how can we know the way? For those of us at the beginning of the road, wondering where it will lead, how can we know the way? For those of us still on the same old road, worried that we just can’t keep trudging along, how can we know the way? And for those of us completely off the road, just plain lost, how can we know the way?
Originally, the question is asked by Thomas and addressed to Jesus. Jesus answers him by saying “I am the way.” Last week Dave preached about Jesus’ saying “I am the gate.” Not only does Jesus say, “I am the gate”, he says “I am the way” that leads beyond the gate. I believe that what was true for Thomas then is true for you now. How can you know the way? Jesus says to you, “I am the way.”
One thing that is important about Jesus’ answer is what he does not say. He does not say, “I will show you the way.” There is a big difference between “I am the way” and “In will show you the way.” I will show you the way is like an impersonal set of directions. What you need to do with this relationship or life decision is x, y, and then z.
Maybe you know someone who always wants to show you the way. We had a distant relative – a very smart doctor – who would always take complicated life situations, boil them down to black and white and tell you “It’s as simple as that: x-y – z.” I always felt more lost after he showed me the way than I did before.
There are other problems with I will show you the way. Maybe you perfectly understand the way you are being shown, but you lack the ability to follow it. Husbands, for example, are shown the way very clearly by the Scripture. They are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. That means that they are to lay down their lives for their wives in each and every case. And yet, I don’t know a single husband who does this perfectly. Maybe a few do it well. Most of us, me included, do it badly. Showing the way, knowing the way, is not the same as going the way. This is true in any number of situations: loving your enemies, not worrying about tomorrow, refraining from envy.
One other problem with “I will show you the way” is that even when we are capable of going the way we are shown, sometimes we just don’t want to. It’s not that we lack the capacity, it’s that we lack the will or the desire. Back to the prayer of St. Francis, I know it is better to console rather than seek consolation, but sometimes I just don’t want to console, I want consolation.
And, finally you may have noticed that when you someone shows you the way and you do not or cannot go the way they have shown, you begin to avoid that person. What may begin as so called “good advice” from a person, ends up being an impassable roadblock between you have failed to follow the advice. This is why giving advice to anyone about anything a dangerous and difficult enterprise. Not only do you not know all that is involved in another’s situation, you put your relationship in immediate jeopardy each time you say, “I will show you the way.”
Thankfully, Jesus says to Thomas, as he says to you and me today, “I am the way.” Another way to say this is that there is no way that Jesus is not – no road on which he is not on, no decision that he will not inhabit with you. There was a game show called The Price is Right in which a contestant had to choose Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3. The prize was only behind one door. I am the way means that Jesus is waiting for you behind Door #1, Door #2 and Door #3.
After all the scripture says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – not even our lostness, or incapacity, or our unwillingness to go the way. No matter where we go, Jesus is the way. Are there any more comforting words than the psalmists? “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
I am the way. This is not to say the way in life does not include sorrow or difficulty, but it is to say that it does and always will include Jesus, the one who loves you, forgives you, and whose hand shall lead you, and better yet, whose hand shall hold your.
I’ll close with Spufford’s description of encountering the way when could not see any way out. After his all night argument he went to a café to nurse a cappuccino along with his misery. The barista put on a piece of music he knew and loved: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, the middle movement, the adagio. He says, “It is a very patient piece of music. It too goes round and round, essentially playing the same tune again, on the clarinet alone and then with the orchestra, lifting up the same unhurried lilt of solitary sound, and then backing it with a kind of messageless tenderness in deep waves, when the strings join in.”
Spufford says, “it offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but there is still more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is. Listen and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered.”