We took a lot of road trips as a family when I was growing up. Whether we flew some place and rented a car or just drove to the destination over the course of several days, it was a consistent marker of every summer that we spent at least two weeks driving around somewhere in the U.S. The memory is still fresh in my mind. (You know like a mental scar from an event that was inescapable and could only be endured.) Just days and days of the four of us crammed into a Chevy hatchback in order to have that experience that every child grows to dread and then repeat with their own family later like behavioral therapy… I speak here of Family Time. That time set aside to reconnect as a family community and to truly understand in some microcosm familial way why the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would write that “hell is other people.” (Just kidding. It wasn’t that bad. Although my younger sister who was stuck in the back seat with me may beg to disagree.)
But, it was on one of these such trips that we heard someone say the phrase that still lives on in our family stories. In our search for some local attraction (Iowa’s biggest ball of paint, South Dakota’s largest chicken coop, etc…) we got somewhat turned around. In the days before cell phone maps, we were forced to rely on small gas station maps and oversized atlases, but somehow both had failed us. We drove up one road and then another in the hot August sun while searching for any sign that may point us in the right direction until we saw an older gentlemen working in his front yard. Hoping to get directions, my father pulled over and rolled down the window to ask him how to get to where we were headed. The man, happy to help, sauntered over to the open car window, sighed, wiped his brow, and then said the phrase that we would repeat for the rest of the trip and so many others:
“Hmmm…. well, you can’t get there from here.”
You ever heard anyone say this? It’s a strange phrase, isn’t it?
You can’t get there from here. I mean, on one hand, it doesn’t mean what it seems to say. (Especially because the man then told us exactly HOW to get to our destination.) It seems like it’s not a phrase that means you can’t get someplace at all, but rather it’s a phrase that means you can’t get somewhere directly. And so, to get where you are trying to go you are going to have to head somewhere else first. Or to put it another way, you can get there, but you can’t get there directly… there is no direct path.
In a lot of ways, our Scripture passage for this week reminds me of that man giving us directions on that hot August afternoon, because it too says to us “You can’t get there from here.” It’s a passage where Jesus in the last moments before he would be arrested and taken away sits with his disciples to tell them how they should live when he is gone. And it is there that he says “Where I am going, you cannot come. And so, now I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.” It is as though Jesus is saying to them that when he is gone that means they cannot be with him in the same way anymore. They can’t touch him or hear his voice in the same way… there will no longer be the direct path to him that they have in that moment.
How hard that must have been for them to hear that from Jesus. Their questions must have been immediate: We can’t go with you? What do you mean? We’ve had this time with you to walk together, hear your voice, see your face, but now you are saying that’s over?
You can’t get there from here.
Yes, hard words for them to hear. And, as it would turn out, they were true words. But maybe it’s true for Jesus in the same way that phrase was true for us on that hot August day… it’s not that you can’t get there at all, but just that you can’t get there directly. To see Jesus, to hear his voice, to walk with him will now mean to see each others’ needs, to hear their voices and to walk with them. Simply put, to love Jesus is now to love one another.
On Sunday, as we gather to celebrate Christ and to hear the Gospel (and in our great way disprove that grumpy French philosopher!), I am excited for us to see Christ and to hear his voice. We come seeking him, and I know he will be there. Maybe we won’t see him physically, but we will still see him in each other… in laughter, in song, in noisy, dancing children, and in the faces we see as we sing. And as we leave and separate from each other, we’ll go in the joyful sense that we still got where we were headed… even if not directly. See you on Sunday, and if you’d like to read the Scripture in advance you can find it here.
Rev Brent Ross grew up loving the Twilight Zone and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For better or worse both of these things enter into writing his sermons every week.