The Broken Road

Luke 24:13-35 The Walk to Emmaus

That long walk back to the car. I’m willing to bet you’ve all experienced it. You know the one, the fireworks are over and it’s time to go home. You’re carrying one kid whose too heavy to be carried and pulling another along by the hand. And of course, the car seems like it’s about seven miles away. You know the walk I’m talking about.

As we come to this narrative from Luke’s Gospel this morning, I wonder if that’s how the two disciples felt as they made their way toward Emmaus.  I would imagine that their feet were as heavy as their hearts and their grief was as palatable as the dew gathering in the evening air. But as we’ve seen so many times in the gospels, or when we find ourselves travelling down some long and broken road, God has a way of showing up.  And the story of the Walk to Emmaus is no exception. At first, of course, they didn’t recognize the Risen Christ. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, once said, “God is at home; it is we who have gone for a walk.” Sometimes it’s only with 20/20 hindsight that the presence of God becomes apparent.

Take Cassie’s story for example.  I’ve previously shared her story in Bible study but it bears repeating. Cassie suffered from epileptic seizures which had greatly affected the course of her life.  But as a 20 something Cassie decided to move out on her own for the first time. It was only a couple of weeks however, before she had a seizure that landed her in intensive care. As a matter of fact, when I arrived at the hospital, she was in a constant state of seizure.  Her family was there and we gathered around her bed for prayer. Some of them touched Cassie while the rest of us joined hands.  I lead a prayer but left the hospital that day with little confidence that Cassie would be alright.  This all took place on a Saturday.  The next morning Cassie’s mother came to church and after the worship service was over, she shared with me that our prayer had been effective.  “It worked,” she said, “it really worked!” When I questioned her further she said that while we were praying at Cassie’s bedside, there was a nurse monitoring her EEG. Before was started it was all over the place.  But while we were praying the seizure subsided and when we said “amen” the disruption in her brain started again.  Now, there could be many “rational” explanations for this occurrence, and they would most likely be accurate.  But I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God was present in that hospital room. Yes, God is present all the time, but there are moments when, what’s been called the “veil between God and humanity” is especially thin. Times when God makes us very aware that we are in the company of the Divine. In the context of today’s gospel lesson, these might be called “broken bread” moments.

“But even so, the experience of these two travelers was fleeting, just as our glimpses of God, or brushes with the Divine, tend to be. We look back on our experiences and process them, understanding them better “in the rear-view mirror” than we did face-to-face. How does God still speak to you today, not only through the encounter these early Christians had with Jesus, but through your own encounter with Jesus, in the breaking of bread, the sharing of stories, the study of Scripture?

You see, we’re not just hearing a story about something that happened to other people, long ago and far away. The same amazing things, the wonderful works of God, are happening here, today, in our lives, too, if we open our eyes and see, and then, maybe our hearts, too, will burn within us. When we struggle with questions concerning the meaning of life or we just can’t understand why so many bad things are happening in the world today; often, the answer is often right before us.”[i]

And for the two Emmaus Road travelers, the answer to their grief; the understanding about what had taken place was right before them and it was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. They didn’t recognize the Risen Christ until he broke bread with them. I wonder how often we too miss the presence of God in the blur of our lives or as we traverse the broken roads of grief and despair? But what if we didn’t? what if we were to become attuned to the still speaking voice of God? What if we were to discover and experience these broken bread moments for ourselves? What might that look like?

Well, our first thought, of course, is of communion.  Communion is the time when we are invited to renew our covenant with God. A covenant that was established at our baptism and reestablished every time we partake of the sacred meal.

But beyond the communion table, there are other times, other breakings of bread, when we are keenly aware of these broken bread moments. A family meal perhaps. The warm sense of belonging and hospitality that comes from dinning with family or friends.  Thanksgiving immediately comes to mind.  A time when we gather to break bread and give thanks for all the blessing in our lives.

But it goes even further than that.  As I studied this text, it quickly became apparent that hospitality is the intended lesson here. Jesus himself challenges us to provide bread to someone who’s hungry and that provision is a form of hospitality. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

So, hospitality, in the form of bread, physical bread, has the potential to transform the lives of those who are struggling, but it can also change us.  If we open our eyes and our hearts and our doors to all who need God’s grace, who long for Christ’s love; to all who are travelling that broken road of hopelessness and stand in need of the healing and restoration that the Divine Spirit can provide, then, we are the living embodiment of Christ to those persons. Hospitality, when viewed from this perspective, then, “is not simply a matter of being nice; hospitality is justice and generosity embodied, a spiritual practice that both requires and brings spiritual growth.”[ii] “Now, as the United Church of Christ strives to extend and embody extravagant hospitality, where are the possibilities of transformation within our congregations and ourselves? How is God still speaking to us in the simple breaking of bread, the sharing of the story, the study of Scripture? We need to open our eyes to what is happening, each time we come to the table of God’s grace and each time we venture out into the world.”[iii]

One final thought.  Hospitality is a fluid thing.  By fluid I mean it is both given and received. One is not more important than the other. In the church and as individual people of faith, we are proficient at being the givers of hospitality. And that’s a good thing.  We are not, however, always so good at receiving it. But if hospitality is justice and generosity embodied by someone seeking to care for us, why would we deny them that opportunity to share the love of Christ with us?

As we go out from this place today, in this Easter season, I think we would do well to focus on being and becoming even more deeply, both, givers and receivers of hospitality.  God’s hospitality and that of our fellow human beings. And if we can do that, whatever broken road we may face can be smoothed over, or at the very least, negotiated side by side and hand and hand with our neighbor. And who knows, through the experience, maybe the presence of God will become apparent to us in some new and awesome way.  Perhaps even in the breaking of bread.

May it be so.

Amen.

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[i] Kathern Matthews. Followers of the Way. A reflection on Luke 24.(www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2017

 [ii] R. Alan Culpepper. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IX. Leander E. Keck et. al. ed.(Abingdon Press 1995) pgs. 475-483

[iii] Ibid. Matthews

 

A New Day

An Easter Message – John 20:1-18

Resurrection is about hope.  It’s also about life and transformation. Resurrection is about moving from the darkness of death into the luminescence of new life; the brilliance of a new day. As we gather on this Easter morning, I encourage you to take a moment and consider the possibilities of resurrection, the presence of hope, and the progression of the seasons that have brought us to this point. Lent challenged us to “turn around” and consider deepening our relationship with God and with others.   Holy week has taken us through the last supper and to the foot of the cross; a cross that represented torture, humiliation, and death.

But through the resurrection, because Christ overcame death, the symbol of the cross was transformed into something else; something powerful.  What once represented death now signifies life and healing and restoration.  That’s the great beauty of Easter.  The cross tells us that even at our worst, humanity, can be healed; transformed. The empty tomb demonstrated that not even death could separate us from the unconditional Love of God.

I read a story this week about unconditional love. It was about a little girl named Liza.  Liza was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save Liza.” As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. But then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?” You see, the boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give her all his blood.[i]

As I read this article, I thought to myself, “What a beautiful metaphor for Easter.” This boy loved his sister so much that he was willing to give his own life to save hers. It’s stories like these that remind us that there is hope for us after all.

Stories are really good way to convey hope. Consider the story of Mary at the empty tomb from the 20th Chapter of John’s Gospel.  Mary comes to the tomb “while it was still dark,” probably feeling sad, bereft, and I’m sure wanting to feel a little closer to Jesus; maybe it’s easier for her to grieve there, or, maybe she no longer has any place else to go. I’m guessing, in any case, she wasn’t there because she expected the tomb to be empty; she wasn’t there because she thought she would meet the Risen Christ.[ii]

But that’s the great thing about Easter.  Mary did meet the Risen Christ.  She came to the tomb while it was still dark but left with the hope of a new day.  And this same kind of transformation is possible for each of us as well. It often seems as if the world is “going to hell in a handbasket.” Sometimes, all we can see is the darkness. When we see a loved one struggle or a child suffer from exposure to deadly gas or a refugee turned away at the border it breaks our collective hearts.  When we see fragile eco-systems disrupted and whole species of animals becoming extinct, we shake our fist and shout “why.” When we see the horrors of war and missiles flying on the nightly news or witness senseless acts of violence against innocent victims, it gives us pause to wonder, “Where is God in all this? But the good news of Easter, my friends, is that God does not operate within the humanly limits of life and death. With God, new life is possible; a new day is always dawning.

Now, as you listen to this you might accuse me of being overly Pollyannic, and you might be right. I do like my cup half-full. But that’s the perspective of hope. Hope requires faith and faith enables us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to the God. Faith requires a different way of thinking. It requires a faithful perspective that invites us to see the possibility of new life in every death, to see the light shining in even the deepest darkness, and to see hope amid despair. But this is easier said than done. At the end of the day, it takes something of a leap of faith for us to really entrust our lives to the kind of hope that God awakened in the restoration of Christ’s life on that first Easter morning.

So, where do we begin? I don’t know. Perhaps we could begin by being thankful for life itself and see where that takes us? You know, Emily Dickinson once said: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” That’s a powerful image, isn’t it? If we choose to live, fully live a life of faith, there is no time left of worry or greed, despair or hopelessness. And that what resurrection represents; a recognition that there are “small” resurrections all around us, every day.

I mean, think about spring. Spring is full of small resurrections. Flowers emerge from seemingly lifeless bulbs, butterflies once again push forth from their winter cocoons, and the mother bear and her cubs crawl out of their winter dens. The buds on the trees open wide to the gathering sunlight and all the possibilities of new life come to light. And these small resurrections go beyond just the natural world. When chronic pain is relieved by the hand of a skilled surgeon, the patient experiences this concept of a small resurrection. Their life is in a very real way, restored.  When a homeless child finds permanent shelter or a foster child finally leaves the system behind and finds a loving home with adoptive parents, that’s a small resurrection in the life of that child. When the physically hungry are fed, when the spiritually thirsty are touched by the grace and wonder of God, when an act of kindness leads to a restored, or a new or renewed relationship, that’s a small resurrection. When we are moved by a beautiful piece of music, or feel the satisfaction of serving others, or find meaning and draw nearer to God through a spiritual practice or in worship service, or when we see the face of Christ in a stranger; these things too are small resurrections.

You see, anytime we move from the “while it was still dark” places in our lives and into the light of hope, into the new day of Christ’s resurrection, we experience a small resurrection within the core of our being. And that my friends, is the hope I have for each you on this Easter Sunday and in all your day ahead. May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Dan Millman. A Little Boy Makes a Big Sacrifice from Chicken Soup for the Soul        Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen eds.

 

[ii] Kathryn M. Matthews reflection on John 20:1-18(www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/sermon/seeds  2017)

The Tail of the Kite

Matthew 21:1-11 – Palm Sunday

The whole city waited breathlessly for his arrival. There was excitement, and lots of talk, not the kind of talk we’d call gossip but talk that was full of hope, wild hope that, no matter how bad things had been, no matter how long the people had suffered, things were going to be different now, because of him. People tried to figure out the best way to welcome him, to prepare for the wonderful future he was going to bring. He was The One, the one they and their fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers before them had been waiting for, hoping for, dreaming of. Some people even now had started to call him “the King.” Life for the people of this city and its surroundings was going to be different–transformed–because of his leadership, his powerful gifts and what they promised, and the people of the city would be filled with pride and self-confidence once more. They’d see themselves in a new way, and their city in a new way, or better, their city would be restored to its former glory.[i]

Chicago can relate to this. Their beloved Cubbies hadn’t come through for over a century. The fans, year after year, would recall the Cubs past glories and hope for a successful future. This continued for 108 years. But, on a damp evening in Cleveland last October the Chicago Cubs, finally, won the World Series. And lest you think this wasn’t a big deal in Chicago, the victory parade is rumored to be the seventh largest gathering of people in human history.

Now, in some ways, Jerusalem was a lot like Chicago back in the first century. For many centuries, Jerusalem had been a city of both hunger and hope, and always recalled its past glories and its future promise. Remember heroic King David, the great leader who ruled in justice and peace, whose memory inspired the people to long once again for a king who would restore them to those former glories? The Messiah himself was said to be “the son of David,” and they hoped he would be the king of Israel, a nation that had lived under the heel of one oppressive, violent empire after another, all the way back to Egypt, and later Assyria, Babylon, and now Rome.   The Romans extracted heavy taxes from the people, stationed troops overlooking the temple itself to keep a kind of peace in the city, and chose from the people a few collaborators to keep things running smoothly in this land so distant from the center of the empire. The situation in Jerusalem and the countryside was not good: many people were drowning in debt, a high foreclosure rate on the land concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, and most people were hungry, jobless, and desperate.

The kings of Israel themselves, after David, had done a terrible job of living up to what God expected of them, and that’s why the prophets often scolded Jerusalem for its neglect of the poor, its injustice and greed. Jerusalem was both the holy city and, as Jesus said, “the city that killed the prophets.” But at this point in history, the power rested in the hands of the Romans, and those who collaborated with them.      Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan draw a wonderful picture of that “Palm Sunday” long ago. They describe not one but two processions into the city that day: one, from the west, was led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor coming into the city to “keep the peace,” no, better, to keep order, during the Passover, the Jewish high holy day celebrating Israel’s long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire. “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city,” Borg and Crossan write: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”[ii]

This was the power of empire on display, but it was also a kind of theology, too, because the Roman emperor claimed to be the son of God, so “the way things were” were that way because their “god” decided it should be so. Works out well for the Romans and the wealthy, but not so much for the people under their heel.

Now, on the other side of town, from the east, came a very different procession, one we read about in Matthew’s Gospel account today. This “king” rides in not on a warhorse but on a donkey, surrounded not by cavalry or foot soldiers with helmets and banners but by peasants, the urban poor, and the spiritually hungry as well, holding palm branches, and exuberantly full of praise and hope that has been kept alive by those prophets who promised a time of peace, and justice, and a leader who would inaugurate that great and glorious day.   Zechariah and Isaiah were two of those prophets, and Matthew quotes them in this passage, but he also recalls something that happened earlier in his Gospel, when Jesus was a little tiny, humble baby whose birth caused such a stir in the city that powerful King Herod felt compelled to strike out at him in fear and violence. He was a threat to the powerful then, and during this Holy Week, he will be seen that way again.

The powers that be of the temple will hand Jesus over to the powers that be of the empire, and that empire will kill Jesus. That’s what empires do. That’s what these two processions were about, one kind of power confronting another. For a while, it will appear that the empire, that violence and suffering, injustice and greed have won. But on the third day, we know, that God will say no to this kind of power, and yes to the power of love and justice, compassion and peace, yes to the power of new life. I read a story this week about saying yes to the power of love and justice.

Katheryn Matthews writes that when her children were small they joined a small, African American church in an impoverished neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. And each year, this little congregation went on their own Palm Sunday procession to another church several blocks away. Now, you must understand that this was a neighborhood that had erupted in flames and riots when Dr. King was killed, and years later its violent crime rate was still very high. The “Hough riots” happened right in front of the church, and the church members remembered looking out at the buildings as they burned. “But,” Katheryn writes, “I confess that I was a little uneasy each year, as a mother of small children, wondering if it was wise to take them on this walk. The choir led us in spirituals as we processed down Ansel Road, and I remember watching my sons and daughter as they took all of this in, especially when they looked up at windows that had no glass in them but only blankets across them, and children who pulled back the blankets to look at the procession passing by. This was where they lived, every day. How could we take that walk on Palm Sunday, how could we say and sing that we wanted to follow Jesus, and not make the connection to the suffering of the people that surely touched his own heart and led him to say and do the things that eventually brought him to this moment, to this confrontation with the powers that be?”[iii]

I think this is a story that really speaks to the Church today. It’s so much easier to say that Jesus died for my sins and washed them all away than it is to take up the cross of the suffering of the world, to make a choice between one procession and another, to choose non-violence, and justice, generosity and peace, rather than opting for power and security and judgment.   So here’s the relevant question that we must ask ourselves today: “Are we there with Jesus?” Are we willing to pay the price with him for holding onto that dream of God, the reign of God when, as the prophet Isaiah says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”? The prophet Micah speaks these same words, but he adds, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”

No more hunger. No more war. My friends, we are invited to dream with God of that great day, as we hear this story at the beginning of another Holy Week. And, we are also invited to find ourselves in that story and thus, we must choose, one procession over the other. I hope we will remember, as we make our own decision, what Margaret Farley has written about what it means to be a follower of Jesus: “Christianity,” she writes, “is a religion of resistance and hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death.”[iv]   The choice, then, is before us. What it will be? Which procession shall we join? Will we dare to hope, and to follow Jesus on his way?

(A note on the title of this message.  “The Tail of the Kite” was the illustration I used for the Palm Sunday Children’s message, 2017)

[i] Kathryn M. Matthews Passion Amid the Palms (ucc.org/Samuel/sermonseeds 2017)

[ii] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week:  Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. (Harper: San Francisco, 2006) pgs. 2-5

[iii] Ibid. Matthews

[iv] Margaret A. Farley. Changing the Questions: Explorations in Christian Ethics (Orbis Books, 2015)