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May 14, 2017

The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Passage: John 14:1-14

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Easter 2017

Category: Easter


A sermon about remembering to show love in response to the great gift of relationship that God gives to all people.


How many of you have heard of Henrietta Lacks? I hadn’t heard of her until a few weeks ago when I happened to catch interviews of some of the stars of the new HBO movie based on the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I have not seen the movie (I don’t have HBO), but I decided to get the audiobook. I am a big fan of audiobooks. I listen to them when I’m driving and exercising. When I started the book, I knew only what I read in the paragraph-long description I saw online and what I heard from those promotional interviews. In other words, not much. Over the past couple of weeks, I listened to the entire book. It’s one that I would highly recommend to you. In the book, there is some science. Henrietta is famous because her cells (HeLa cells) that have been multiplying in labs around the world since 1951, the same year that Henrietta died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. So yes, there is science, but it is written in a way that even I could understand it.

But, it is also about a woman whose cells were taken from her. Henrietta was an African-American woman, mother of five children, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. She died less than a year later at the age of 31. The book reminds us why going back in time is not in our collective best interests being that few hospitals would treat black people and if they did they were not treated with the respect that we consider standard practice today. But, the most important part of the book was understanding what happened to her family, and what happens to so many families, who live near me geographically, but are living lives that almost seem to be on another plane of existence.

Due to many extenuating circumstances, the Lacks family was not told that Henrietta’s cells were used to test the polio vaccine, that they were launched into space, and were being sold to labs around the world so that researchers could study all types of things. The sale of her cells have made millions of dollars and the research has resulted in billions of dollars of scientific developments (and Nobel prizes).

But, the Lacks were only notified when their DNA was needed to continue to research the cells (over 20 years after the cells were taken). And even then, the family members were not told why. The Lacks family had no idea and have not enjoyed any of the financial benefit.  

The part of the story that touched me most profoundly was how the memory of Henrietta as a mother, or lack of memory of Henrietta as a mother, so profoundly influenced the life of her daughter, Deborah. Deborah was only a toddler when Henrietta died and she spent a good portion of her adult life trying to know more about her mother, trying to know more about how she died, and about how her cells continue to live. The science of cells confused her even after years of people trying to explain it to her.

Unlike other members of her family, Deborah didn’t want money; she wanted people to know that her mother had saved lives, had contributed something special to the world, and that was exactly what Henrietta Lacks didn’t get. At least not as widely as she deserved.

Deborah’s efforts to know her mother and to share her amazing legacy consumed her. When she finally discovered long lost records and a few pictures in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it was a period that brought her great joy, excitement at learning things about her mother, while at the same time pushing her to her physical limits.

In today’s Gospel, we hear how Jesus told his disciples that he was going to leave them (this portion of John’s Gospel is known as his farewell discourse). Jesus told them, in his own way, that they should have hope. The disciples, at least Philip and Thomas, weren’t experiencing that hope. They are experiencing despair. Jesus told them that, “where I am, there you may be also.” And Thomas asked, “How can we know the way?” And Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Philip then asked, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

These disciples had spent three years (give or take) with Jesus and they didn’t understand who Jesus was and what Jesus had taught about God. They were looking for something in the distance that they could do so that they could achieve a relationship, a holy relationship that would result in what they called “eternal life.” In this way, the disciples are very like us. We want to be in charge of being in relationship with God, so much so that we think that our choices, our religion, our state of being, our blessedness is a result of our efforts. That is why this scripture is often used by the more literal biblical believers to show the exclusivity of Jesus’ way. There is that hard to swallow verse (for those of us who have relatives and friends who are not Christian), “No one comes to the Father except through me.” If we read those words like we are responsible for God’s salvation (I mean that our choices and behaviors will lead us to God and to eternal life), then that tricky clause sounds like only the Christians (or some subset of Christians who are true or real) can really ascend to God.

But Jesus told his disciples (and tells us) that is not the way it works. Jesus’ teaching (throughout the gospel and in this passage) is clearly pointing out that God is with us through God’s initiative, not ours. That eternal life is happening around us and that advancing that work is really a result of sharing love (like God shares love) to all people.

Deborah Lacks was seeking to share the news of her amazing mother’s contribution to the world. It consumed her. I’m not judging her because it is something we all do (for less amazing reasons). We want to leave a lasting legacy in the world and we want to prove that our lives and the lives of those most important to us were or are extraordinarily significant. We want to be in the spotlight, to be recognized by the mayor, and to be noted in the Northwest Courant. That is human nature at its core. It was true in Jesus’ time and it is true in ours. Philip and Thomas were attempting to set the markers on their role in this world. Ticking off the checklist of things that would lead them to eternal life, a heavenly celebration, where they could cash in on their sacrifices as followers of Jesus.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” That is what Jesus said to the disciples at the beginning of today’s Gospel. We can do that only if we can believe that all lives, including ours, are equally significant in the eyes of God. God did not initiate a relationship with only a select group of human beings; God initiated a relationship with all of God’s creation and this relationship is seen through a lens of love. God appreciates and is thankful for our contributions because all are equally valuable in God’s Kingdom.

I encourage you to think about a few things this week. Take a moment to write or type all the things that you believe are important pieces of your legacy and then reflect deeply on Jesus’ response to Philip and Thomas and note what Jesus appreciates in you. You are a legacy in God’s eyes. You are living in God’s kingdom right now.

Knowing that you are loved by God is the way, the truth and the life. And it is something that we have already been gifted with, freely given. What Philip and Thomas failed to understand was how they were called to respond. Not by being extraordinary, but by loving and being loved. By accepting that God’s kingdom is open. And it remains open for all of us. Are you willing to accept this amazing gift? If so, love like Jesus loves.


The Rev. Kurt Gerhard

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church

May 14, 2017

Easter 5A