The Troubled Heart

Passage: John 14:23-29
Date: May 26, 2019
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Jon Andres

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When my daughter was growing up, I spent a lot of time watching Disney movies with her; you know, movies like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Jungle Book. And, after watching the Little Mermaid for the 50th time, I started to ask questions. Like, how many more times can my daughter watch this? How do they make all the songs so catchy? But the big question I have is why are so many characters in Disney movies orphaned? Many of them are either motherless or fatherless or separated from their parents. There’s actually quite a long list…there’s Elsa and Anna in Frozen, there’s Cinderella, Bambi, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, there’s Simba in the Lion King, Lilo and Stitch, Mowgli in The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, there’s Snow White, Pinocchio, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and Nemo. And the list goes on, and it’s not just in Disney movies; it’s in all movies, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. There’s Superman, Batman, Spider Man, Harry Potter…

What’s that about?

Some have said that Walt Disney was living with guilt about the death of his mother and he was working it out. But it’s not just in Disney movies, it’s everywhere in the movies. I think that the fear of being alone, abandoned, or orphaned is a fear in humans that goes back very far. It is the greatest fear for children. Maybe the point of a lot of these stories is to help children confront that fear and learn how to grow up on their own and meet the challenges of life on their own, how to get on with life.

Jesus addressed this fear when he said to his disciples, “I won’t leave you orphaned.” These words come from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse found in the gospel of John. I have read this passage at funerals and memorial services and at the graveside. I’ve read it because they are words of comfort to those who are grieving and struggling with loss and saying goodbye to their beloved. What was it like for the disciples, the followers of Jesus, who had devoted their lives to following him and now he is saying that he is leaving them? This was new ground for the disciples. This was a night of firsts from seeing their master kneeling before them to wash their feet, and now he is saying, yes, I’m leaving, but I’m not leaving you alone, not leaving you abandoned, not leaving your orphaned. That’s something we all need to hear and be reminded of when we most need to remember. The disciples were just ordinary human beings, just like you and me, and in this moment they experienced something extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. They were having an experience of the human condition, this is what it is to be human, this is life.

They were saying goodbye to one they loved, to the one they had been following, the one they had devoted their lives to, the one who had been their true north, their guide. We know something about that kind of loss. I imagine there were lots of tears streaming down on their beards that night.

Jesus also says, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” I don’t know if it was just one or all of them, but when he said that, they said, “Wait! What? How can we not have troubled hearts? How can we not be afraid?”

Jesus says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” We know what the world gives. We know what the world has to offer. The world gives trouble that we carry in our hearts. The troubled heart is something we share with the disciples. We know about troubles. Trouble is in our hearts and fear is all around. We have sung the words to the old spiritual:

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows the sorrow.”

We know trouble. We’ve seen trouble. And we don’t have to look very far. There’s a lot that troubles our hearts.

There’s trouble in the South, there’s trouble in Washington, there’s trouble in the Middle East. There’s a world of troubles.

There’s trouble with shootings in our schools and in our places of worship. There’s trouble brewing. There’s trouble in the streets with homelessness and poverty and violence. There’s the trouble of famine and war. 

There’s the trouble of racism and white supremacy. We see our brothers and sisters of color subjected to the violence of a system that says they are less-than. There’s trouble in the LGBTQ community as people continue to be marginalized. There’s trouble on the border and children are being separated from their parents; their greatest fear is becoming a reality. 

And we sing the words of the old bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins:

Bad luck and trouble hangin’ ’round my door
Bad luck and trouble hangin’ ’round my door
You believe it I’m a hopin’, won’t come back no more
Goodbye trouble

There’s trouble on this fragile planet with warming temperatures and rising waters and the extinction of a million species. And we have a sense that what we do to mend this hurting world will never be enough and will not make a difference.

Our hearts are troubled by disappointment and fleeting relationships with vulnerable people who hurt us or leave us. We live our lives trying to give ourselves fully in relationships only to see marriages crumble and leave us feeling bitter and alone.

Our hearts are troubled by shattering trauma and by the slow ache of depression and mental illness.

Our hearts are troubled by grief and seeing those we love slip away into addictions, slip away into violence, slip away into death that takes each and every one of us, and always too soon.

And our troubled hearts sing out with the words of Cat Stevens:

Oh trouble set me free
I have seen your face
And it’s too much too much for me.

Living in this world, that gives us trouble; we, like the disciples, face trauma, suffering, loss, pain, and sadness, and then, somehow, must survive, must somehow continue to live and breathe even when it feels impossible.

In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Jesus’ parting words are rendered as, “I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft.” This world can leave us feeling like the floor has fallen out from beneath us, feeling alone, numb, helpless.

Jesus tells his followers that he does not give as the world gives. He does not leave them the way they’re used to being left.

He leaves them with peace.

He leaves them the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth that God will send. We can think of the Holy Spirit as the continuing presence of Jesus. We can think of the Holy Spirit like a tutor or prompter standing on the wings of this stage where the story of the human condition is played out. And the Spirit, the Prompter, reminds us there is a way to live in this world of troubles; the way of love and faith and courage that Jesus lived and taught.

As a chaplain working in the hospital, I see people with troubled hearts everyday. And I also see people living the way of love and faith and courage. I see teams of doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists working together to bring comfort and healing to the patients they care for.

I see family members at the bedside of their loved one, supporting them as they hear the news of the diagnosis, or as they go through treatment, or as they approach the end of life.

It helps knowing that we are not alone as we face the world’s troubles. It is that human connection that brings healing and strength and courage.

I first met a patient that we’ll call Catherine in a palliative-care consult in the unit where she was a patient in the hospital. At that time, the medical team was still trying to come up with a diagnosis of what appeared to be some kind of neurological disorder. I was blown away by her courage as she faced the unknown, the uncertainty, the uncontrollable. 

I appreciated how she insisted steering the ship of her medical care by setting limits with the medical team, saying that she wanted a time all to herself and not to be disturbed, a time without turns, without treatment, and no vitals being checked. This was time that allowed her to gather strength to face the troubles and the challenges of the day.

I asked her where she got her strength from, and she said, without hesitation, “My family. They are everything to me.”

Finally, the diagnosis of ALS came and Catherine continued to fight for an acceptable quality of life.

I appreciated the way she utilized spiritual care. She didn’t have a lot of time to talk because it was tiring, so she would cut to the chase and talk about all the losses she was grieving because of this disease, like never being able to ride a horse again. She expressed her feelings of grief and sadness, her anger and her frustration and her fears. She knew that sharing the feelings would make them a little easier to carry. 

She also turned to her spirituality as a source of strength. She had described herself as “spiritual but not religious,” which meant that she had a connection to the transcendent that gave her a sense of meaning and purpose, but she didn’t express this connection by being part of any organized religion. She always requested a prayer at the end of our visits. And I always prayed that she find peace in knowing that she wasn’t alone, in the name of love and courage.

Catherine was eventually discharged to an intensive rehab facility where she spent a week until she decided to sign on to hospice. She went home and died peacefully, surrounded by the family that was everything to her. I will never forget her, and I believe that she will always be a part of me. She reminds me how to live despite the troubles that the world gives.

I don’t know if it was St. Francis or Martin Luther but one of them was asked what he would do if he knew that tomorrow the world was coming to an end, and he said, “I would plant a tree.” This is an act of love and courage.

I wonder if that comes from the peace that Jesus leaves with the disciples. This deep peace that is given to us shows us that no matter what troubles the world gives, we can be confident that love is stronger than hate, that hope is more resilient than fear and despair, and that light can and will and does break through the darkness. 

That’s the peace that was given to Francis, Martin Luther, Catherine, and to each one of us. This peace is not the absence of troubles but the presence of love.

They found peace in knowing that God had made a home in their troubled hearts in a world of fears.

We too are the disciples gathered in the upper room. We are the disciples who live in a world of troubles, holding pain and loss and sadness. But we are also the disciples at the empty tomb.

We have the Holy Spirit, the Prompter, in us and with us. We have a Spirit that is always standing alongside, that is the very presence of God, as close to us as our breath, breathing peace and possibility into these troubled hearts of ours, making us people of courage living in the world.