Read the text here: John 14:1-12
On the Way
One of my favorite movies is the classic Judy Garland film “The Wizard of Oz.” I'm sure that I have seen this film at least 20 times, and I'm sure that you have also seen this movie at least once no matter how old you are. You remember the story: A tornado plops Dorothy down in the middle of a strange place called OZ, and in the process she accidently killed the wicked witch of the east and ends up with the precious ruby slippers for which she is then pursued by the profoundly evil Wicked Witch of the west; her major, most important goal thereafter is that she wants to return home to Kansas, which represents life and happiness to her. But how? Maybe the Great Wizard of Oz who lives in the Emerald City would help her (there is, by the way, never any question whether he can or not, only whether he will be willing.) Well then, what is the way to the Emerald City? "JUST FOLLOW THE YELLOWBRICK ROAD!" the Munchkins sing as Dorothy sets off on her adventure. She is carefully instructed that if she will only stay on the Yellowbrick road she will come to the Emerald City without fail.
What a promise! Just follow the Yellowbrick Road to the Emerald City, where the Wizard will grant you your hearts desire and you will find true life and happiness. And Dorothy preaches this gospel without fail to everyone she meets and in the process picks up three unusual traveling companions each one of whom lack only one important trait to make them human. "Maybe the Wizard can help them too," Dorothy suggests. So together they sing "we're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz…because of the wonderful things he does." Nothing holds them back from pursuing their dream: neither forests nor talking trees, nor poppy fields, nor flying monkeys nor even evil incarnate in the Wicked Witch of the West. But eventually what do Dorothy and the others find out at the end? Are the promises of the Yellowbrick road and the Emerald City and the wonderful Wizard of Oz fulfilled?
In our Gospel today the disciples, notably Thomas and Philip are questioning Jesus about the Way. Thomas wants to know where they're going before he starts out. What is the destination? How can I know the way if I don't know the destination? How can I program my GPS to get me somewhere if I don’t know where I am going? How can I formulate objectives if I don't know the goals? Philip's question is similar: "just give me a glimpse of the Father, let me see the Kingdom just for a second." Promise me that it's really there. Together they are saying to Jesus: "Promise us that we will come to the Emerald City and meet the great Wizard that there we will also find true life and eternal happiness. And then, when we're sure that we will find Kansas, then point out the way and we will start on it." They were looking for Jesus to be Glenda the Good Witch of the North who would gently say "follow the Yellowbrick road" and then promise to magically appear whenever they get themselves in a real mess. "Just follow the Yellowbrick road!"
On the surface the disciple’s request is not so outrageous really. We all expect to know which way we're going before we will commit ourselves to any kind of journey. Before I get on Interstate #64 I need to know first whether I'm going to Indianapolis or St. Louis. Before we commit ourselves to a task or a person or an organization we usually feel that we need to at least have caught a glimpse of where we are going. We need to have that promise before making a commitment. This is true with our jobs, careers, with our relationships, especially our marriages; and this is true with our associations, even the church. We ask ourselves: "is this career or this person or this church or this company or this friend or this club going to give me what I need for my life?" Will it be, in a sense, the Yellowbrick road, to an Emerald City or Wizard that promises some kind of fulfilled and happy life at the end? But the problem, as I am sure you have all figured out is that in the end Dorothy and her companions learn a terribly painful lesson: the Wizard is a phony and the promise of the Yellowbrick road is a lie!
A hungering for an experience of true life and happiness is a hungering that each of us has been given as a gift. But when we place something like material success, or career, or power in the role of the Wizard and we embark on a Yellowbrick road that is paved with people's lives, relationships, work and play. And sooner or later we are bound to learn the hard lesson that the Wizard is a phony; he/she/it cannot deliver upon promises made; and that the Yellowbrick Road is a lie.
"Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way of true life; no one comes to the Father but through me." The way of true life is found only in the way of Jesus. And when we have experienced the presence of Jesus in our lives, we have at the same time had a glimpse of the Kingdom. If we have experienced God's love and grace through the caring of a loved one, or a brother or sister in Christ, when we have been sick or during a time of crisis, then we have experienced a glimpse of the kingdom; if we have sensed the presence of God beside us as we have worshiped, prayed, and shared in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in this we have experienced a glimpse of the kingdom; if we have ever mourned, or wept, or hungered or feared or celebrated or rejoiced and felt the presence of the community of Christ, your brothers and sisters with us in this then we have caught a glimpse of the Kingdom.
The way of Jesus is not the Yellowbrick road, it is rather more like the Via Doloroso in East Jerusalem. The Via Doloroso, or Way of Sorrows, is the way tradition believes Jesus took to the place of crucifixion. It is the annual place where pilgrims come on Good Friday to walk the Stations of the Cross. The Via Doloroso is not paved with gold, it is a dirty, smelly, crowded, cramped road on which is barely enough room for all the people and animals which occupy it daily. The Via Doloroso does not go over, or around life, it does not bypass the uncomfortable places; rather it goes right through them. It goes right through the heart of the experience of human life. It is a place where human beings daily experience the joys, sorrows, fears, uncertainties, anger and despair that is human life. Upon the Via Doloroso one is able to encounter all kinds of people. But these people are fully human, with all the gifts and failings that one could expect to find in any person. It was on The Via Doloroso that Jesus encountered, the women who were weeping, the other thieves, Roman soldiers, Zealots, Pharisees, merchants and others. And so too, we also encounter all kinds of people on the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus does not pave over top of people, it does not use lives and relationships as cobblestones for a bypass; it is a way which enables encounter, which is at the service of the people who travel on it.
Finally, The Via Doloroso leads through the cross and the crucifixion - it leads through death and grief. The Way of Jesus does not deny death, it accepts fully that death is a part of life - but that death is not the last word - rather, ultimately the Way of Jesus leads through death to the joy and celebration of the Easter message of the Empty Tomb. Death does not have the last word, Jesus has entered fully into death that he might overcome death and that we all might experience fully the promise of true life. "And Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth and the life…” I am the way of true life, no one comes to the Father except by me.