Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sermon: “Dumbo Disciples”, John 14:1-14 (May 10, 2020)


Have you ever seen the 1941 Disney movie, “Dumbo”? It’s the story of Jumbo Jr., a young circus elephant who’s mocked and scorned for his enormous ears. The other elephants mockingly call him “Dumbo” as a way to belittle him, and it works: he takes their cruelty to heart. One day, he awakes to find himself somehow perched on top of a tree. His only friend Timothy, a circus mouse, is convinced that his abnormally large ears flew him up there while he was sleeping. Being…well…an elephant (and one with low self-esteem, at that), Dumbo is, of course, skeptical. To help him overcome his uncertainty, Timothy gives Dumbo a feather, insisting that it’s magic and will allow him to fly. The feather does the trick, and Dumbo finds that he can, indeed, fly like a bird.

The climax of the movie comes when, in an effort to demonstrate his talent to those who’ve bullied him, Dumbo jumps from a tall building during a circus act (with Timothy along for the ride). However, he loses his grip on the magic feather mid-fall and panics. A frantic Timothy comes clean and admits that the feather was “just a gag”; that Dumbo had always been able to fly on his own. At the last possible moment, Dumbo believes him. He opens his ears dramatically and takes to the air, soaring around the high top and astonishing everyone.

Now, think of the disciples in this passage from John as Dumbo…

Hear me out: Jesus is insisting that they already know everything that they need to, that the knowledge is already inside them, but they keep resisting this truth. They feel like they need a “magic feather”—Jesus’ physical presence, or more information, or a special encounter with God—in order to do the things that Jesus is asking of them. Jesus is giving a speech about why they DON’T need any “magic feathers”, and they’re interrupting him in order to demand them anyway!

For context, this passage is the first part of what’s known as “the Farewell Discourse”. These are Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. So, presumably, Jesus has carefully thought through the most important and urgent ideas that he wants to share with his friends. It’s going as well as can be expected until he says, almost offhandedly, “You know the way to the place I’m going.” Thomas interrupts to argue with him: “No we don’t! If we don’t know WHERE you’re going, how can we know the way?” In other words, “We need more information from you—a magic feather—before we feel comfortable with this whole thing.”

With a level of patience that only the divine possess, Jesus replies, “I AM the way…” It doesn’t matter that they don’t know the destination, the knowledge of the way there has been with them all along! Notice that he doesn’t make this a conditional statement: not “if you believe in me, then you’ll know the way.” There are no prerequisites for this knowledge. It just IS. “I am the way through which everyone comes to the Father.” Through the teachings he shares, the things that he does, and the person he is, Jesus connects us to God. We don’t need anything in order to find the way. Because Jesus lives, we already know it.

But of course, that’s not good enough for the Dumbo disciples. Jesus doubles down on his “It-was-inside-you-all-along” rhetoric by saying, “If you have really known me [insinuating that they definitely have]…you [already] know [the Father] and have seen him.” But now it’s Philip’s turn to demand a magic feather of his own: “Just show us the Father, Lord, and we’ll be good.” Jesus maybe loses a little bit of his cool at this point, saying, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time?” Reading between the lines a little bit, Jesus might as well be saying, “What did I JUST tell you??? You’ve ALREADY seen the Father! YOU ALREADY HAVE WHAT YOU NEED!” It only took Dumbo the elephant a few seconds to understand what Timothy was saying. These ridiculous disciples weren’t able to figure it out when their Lord and Rabbi told them clearly TWO TIMES. And they weren’t even plummeting to the ground while trying to process the information.

Now, if the disciples had everything that they needed to follow Jesus, to know God, to do ministry, BEFORE the resurrection, how much more do you think we, an Easter people, are equipped for this job? We know the risen Christ; we know that our sins have been forgiven; we know that God has triumphed over death. We know so much more than the disciples did at this point…and yet we don’t believe that we have everything we need to do the work of God’s Kingdom, either. We claim faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but we doubt ourselves.

Jesus didn’t. Jesus trusted our knowledge and understanding so much that he ascended into heaven and left God’s kingdom work in our hands. But we still assume that ministry is a job “for the professionals”, that caring for each other and sharing Christ’s love through our individual words and actions is a task we’re just not up to. That we, too, need a magic feather, whether it’s a seminary education, or a better understanding of scripture, or formal ministry programs, or experience teaching others. And because we believe THAT more strongly than we believe in Jesus, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Friends, don’t give the world reason to say that you believe in ANYTHING more than you believe in Jesus. Don’t be like the Dumbo Disciples. Live the faith that we proclaim together each week. Let’s trust Jesus more than our own insecurities or inadequacies. Christ has already declared them irrelevant. So now we must go out into the world (sometimes in new and different ways during the age of COVID-19) and boldly do greater works than even Jesus himself did.

Yes, GREATER (it’s not heresy if it’s a mandate out of the Lord’s own mouth). Jesus changed individual lives, but with the power of social media, instant communication, and 2000 more years of yearning for God’s Kingdom, we can change not only individual lives; we can change THE WORLD. We can reform humanity’s values; we can alter the very way society operates. With just the knowledge of Christ that we already have inside us, we can make it so that we never again have to watch our neighbors go hungry because of the lie that there’s not enough for everyone. That we never again have to watch children locked in cages because their need to survive drove them to our borders. That we never again have to watch another black man get killed because he was going for a run, or wearing a hoodie, or “looking suspicious”. Never again.

There’s no magic feather. So what are we waiting for? All that you need has been inside of you all along. Jesus tells us “You already know the way,” and who are we to argue with God? Stop looking for that one thing that will make you feel prepared. Just like the disciples, we’re all Dumbo, and we have to decide whether we’re going to wait for a magic feather as we hurdle towards the ground, or if we’re going to believe that we’re already enough, and fly. I know what I want to do. I hope to see you in the sky soon. Amen.

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