This sermon, offered on April 30, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
This sermon was preached from the center aisle without notes. What follows is a transcript of the recorded sermon.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
Please be seated.
So I don’t know if it feels this way to you. It feels to me like it was forever ago… But in reality it was only two weeks. Two weeks ago we gathered here three times on the same weekend, Saturday night and twice on Sunday, there were beautiful flowers on the ledges up front here and in all the windows, we had extra musicians up front and the choir sounded amazing. There was a palpable sense of the Spirit in this room, and between those three services 400 people came to church here at St. Andrews. It was amazing. It was just two weeks ago.
Now I don’t know about you, and I’m sure that people say this every year, and I may have said this last year too, but this past year has seemed particularly difficult to me. And so my guess is that those 400 people came here that weekend with a lot of questions in their hearts and minds;
Wondering if the tomb was indeed still empty;
Wondering if we could continue, in the light of all that’s going on around us and the world, to put our faith, our trust in, to continue to believe in the one who came to show us that we are beloved of God and that God is well pleased with us;
Who came to teach us that we are all worthy of dignity and respect;
To show us beyond doubt that nothing could ever separate us from God’s love;
And that we will never, never be alone.
There was a lot at stake that weekend: our faith, our trust, our belief… and we came here to this place to reaffirm what long to know and believe and to trust… two weeks ago… two weeks ago.
Well, in today’s gospel story we have Cleopas and his companion, so let’s just assume for the moment that it’s Cleopas and Mrs. Cleopas, and it is the exact same day that the tomb was discovered to be empty. Not two weeks later. This is the same day and Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas received the same message that we heard two weeks ago. The women who had gone to the tomb came running back to say that the tomb is empty and we’ve seen a vision of angels who told us that Jesus has been raised from the dead!
Now a few lines before the passage we read today we hear that all of the disciples gathered together heard the women’s testimony as an idol tale. And if you go back and look at the original Greek what they really thought it was, was nonsense. Nonsense. It was so far beyond what they could imagine or believe they decided that it was nonsense. And here are Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas on that same day making the 7-mile hike from Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus defeated and broken. When Jesus encounters them on the road they say, “but we had hoped…” “But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” And now their hopes are dashed. The same day!
So here we are, two weeks later, and I think it’s fair and appropriate to do a little check in… “How you doing?” We all left here two weeks ago enlivened, lifted up – I mean we were so excited we went outside and we hunted for Easter eggs. We went home and ate chocolate Easter bunnies. We made ham and lamb and all sorts of things and had meals with the people that we love… But here is two weeks later and I’m wondering if the world around us has started to kill that buzz yet. So how you doing?
I think there’s something really important in this story that only Luke shares with us. And that is the reality that it’s hard. Even for those early disciples who were there in his presence, who heard this word from Mary and the rest of the women, it’s hard cling to that state, and that trust, and that hope, in the face of the pain and the suffering that we experience and that we see in the world around us.
Something remarkable happens in that story. Jesus encounters them on the road to Emmaus in the midst and depth of their grief but he doesn’t leave them there. And this is how he pulls them out.
He shows up and they say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard the things that have happened?” And he says, “What things?” Tell me what’s on your heart. Tell me what’s bothering you. Tell me what you are struggling with. And they tell him the story… and then he proceeds to remind them of different story, a larger story, the story that describes who they are and whose they are. He digs into their sacred Scriptures and points to all of the things in those sacred stories that describe the necessity of what’s happened in the last three days.
Then they invite him in to spend the night, and they sit down at the table, and Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks, it and gives it to them. So there’s a pattern, there is a rhythm there. There’s an order you should recognize.
Yesterday morning when we were here rehearsing with the choristers who are up there in the balcony supporting us in worship this morning we walked through the ordo, the order of our worship. And here’s what we talked about.
We gather together and we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!” We declare God’s presence and we start to pay attention in a very specific and intentional way. And then we say, “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” We open ourselves up. We open our lives to God, and offer what’s hurting, what’s broken, what needs to be mended and reconciled.
And then, we hear from the Old Testament the stories that describe who we are and whose we are, and we responded by saying a psalm together.
Then we hear a story from the New Testament and we respond to God’s missionary outreach through those words by singing another song.
Then we hear the story from the Gospels, the stories of Jesus’s life. And we try very hard to break those open and make those relevant to who we are here and now.
And then we will stand up and will say the Creed. Here’s what we believe about the God with whom we’ve been in dialogue and conversation.
Before you know it were taking that bread and we’re blessing it, and were breaking it, and we’re sharing it.
For Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas this was such an eye-opening moment, it was such a revelation, that they dared to make that 7 mile journey, after dark, back to Jerusalem to share with the rest of the disciples how the whole world had been changed for them by this meal that they shared with Jesus; how their eyes had been opened and they knew the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.
So a couple of minutes ago I said we needed to check in, we needed to see how everybody’s doing two weeks after we celebrated the feast of the resurrection. If you feel the never ending gray skies, and the events of the world around us; wars and rumors of wars, and all of the stuff that fills the news, bearing down on you, threatening to squash the joy that we felt on Easter day… then this is the place to be!
This is the place to be, where we can offer to God our struggles, our doubts, our fears, our pain, our loss; and our joys, and our successes, and our celebrations, and our loves. And then be in dialogue with God through our holy Scriptures; being reminded of who we are, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being… And then we participate in that sacred meal; the taking, and blessing, and giving of bread.
I think there are a couple of caveats to all of this, to this process. First of all we have to be prepared to say what things… what it is that we have on our hearts, and in our minds. We have to be prepared to open ourselves and be vulnerable. To say I’m struggling, I’m wrestling, I have doubts, I have fears. And then to engage in those Scriptures as if they were our own story. And then to come to this table ready to be fed and to be sent on that road back to Jerusalem, back to share the story, back to give to others what has been given to us.
The most important thing I think though in all of this is the sanctification, the acceptance, the embrace of how difficult this path can be. Walking from Emmaus to Jerusalem, and back to Emmaus, and back to Jerusalem. We’re bound to go back to Emmaus and have to make our way back to Jerusalem yet again.
Maybe there are some people for whom a switch is thrown, a light comes on, fingers are snapped; and all of the doubt, and pain, and struggle that we experience in this life goes away. But I haven’t met that person yet. I wish I could tell you that was my story but it’s not. The thing is we don’t have to feel bad or guilty for finding ourselves back in Emmaus.
What we need to do is come to this table, to come to this gathering and share those stories, and hold out our hands, and receive that bread, so that our eyes can be reopened, and we can be reminded; we can come back to ourselves, and go back out into the world.
So here we are this morning. I don’t know if you’re still in Jerusalem. I don’t know if you are in Emmaus. I don’t know if you’re somewhere on the road in between or even which direction you’re facing at this moment. But wherever it is that you are Jesus will meet you in that place. And you are beloved, and with you, no matter where you are on that journey, God is well pleased.
So come to this table. Be nourished and fed for the journey. Take a look around you at your companions on the way. Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas… I see a lot more people on the road than that…