Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
We are continuing this week with a series called “Unraveling,” which is helping us to see how God sometimes uses the spiraling, coming-undone moments in our lives to unravel the fears, emotions, assumptions, and attitudes that may be preventing us from experiencing transformation and new possibilities. We’ve seen this especially in the scripture lessons after Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection – itself an unraveling of sin and death – becomes the new pattern of the way that God works in our lives and in our world. We have begun to see that when our world begins to fall apart, when we are spiraling because of loss, or change, or fear, that God can surprise us with hope, with joy, and with unconditional love, as God takes those loose threads and begins to create something new.
Today’s scripture lesson is about another kind of unraveling – the kind of unraveling that sometimes needs to be done on the inside – so that we can become the person God calls us to be, and so that God can help us find our true path. And while today’s lesson is especially fitting for our graduates who are about to embark on a new journey, it is certainly a lesson for all of us, because no matter where we are on life’s journey, we all have a loose thread or two that threaten to undo us along the way.
Will you pray with me?
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me? (The Summons, John Bell)
We learn first about this man named Saul in Luke’s writings of the Acts of the Apostles. These writings are basically an extension of Luke’s Gospel, which tell of the events that happened after Jesus’ resurrection – events which led to the creation and spread of the early church. In chapters 7 and 8, Saul is described as the one who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, a Christian who was stoned to death by a religious council who saw the entire Christian movement as heretical. And Saul, himself a devout Jewish leader, was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder. After that, he took it upon himself to go from door to door in Jerusalem, looking for anyone who claimed to follow the way of Jesus, the heretic, and would drag them off to prison, women and men. Here in chapter 9 we learn that he continued to “spew out murderous threats against the disciples” and even asks the high priest to give him letters authorizing him to go outside of Jerusalem to continue to weed out this religious sect. And Luke places the story of what happens to Saul on the road to Damascus right among several other stories of surprising transformations that involve the most unlikely people of diverse backgrounds – those of a Samaritan, an Ethiopian Eunuch, Saul the religious terrorist, and a Roman centurion. What is God up to in these stories, why is Christ calling “those people” into a relationship with him?
As we think about life journeys today, even though we are not starting off on a path to new educational opportunities or new jobs, or new phases of life like our graduates, we all do have the opportunity to travel on a spiritual journey of letting God unravel our assumptions and attitudes and preconceived notions about those that we would call “other.” In our world today, we have perhaps never felt so divided. There is such a culture of “us vs. them” especially here in the U.S. as we grapple with politics and global migration and the continued fight for civil rights and liberties. So what does it mean for us who are followers of Jesus’ Way today to see others the way Jesus sees them? You see, Saul thought he was completely justified because of his own religious convictions to harass and persecute Christians. He approved and even helped orchestrate the imprisonment and murder of those who he and others thought threatened their religion. If Jerusalem was a Jewish nation, then imagine how threatening it must have felt for them to see a new religion spreading and taking hold in their land! They thought that their religion was the only true religion, that their interpretation of scripture was the only correct interpretation, that they had the moral high ground.
I don’t know about you, but I can draw some parallels here to the way I’ve heard people comment about how “America used to be a Christian nation, and we’re losing our heritage! We need to make America great again!”…. or about how those in the United Methodist Church today are arguing over who’s in and who’s out when it comes to ministry and ordination and marriage. Kind of sounds like the kind of attitude that God saw in Saul. And graduates, you are not immune from this kind of thinking, either about nationalism or religious interpretation or status or race. Even though you have known a more diverse world in your lifetime, be careful as you go out into the world that you don’t allow others to shape and form your opinions for you. As you become adults, you’ll have the opportunity to get to know so many new people. Be careful that you don’t assume or decide something about people before getting to know them. Don’t equate people with stereotypes. I think that’s one of the things we can all ask for God’s help to unravel within us. Because as humans, we want to associate with people who are like us. We want to find our tribe. And we’re competitive. We want to think that our tribe is better than all the other tribes, and so we may pit ourselves against the other. But is that the Way of Jesus? Is that the path that God calls us to?
On the road to Damascus, to find and rout out other Christians, Saul was surrounded by a light from heaven, which blinded him and took him to his knees. Flannery O’Conner who wrote some of our beloved hymns of faith once said of Saul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” (William Willimon, Acts Interpretation Series) Here Saul has been thinking that those following Jesus were the heretics, but then God breaks in with blinding light to begin the work of unraveling. Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” and he replies, “I am Jesus, the one you have been persecuting.” Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would just speak that loudly and clearly to us all the time? Even Saul’s companions heard Jesus’ voice speaking, even though none of them saw anyone. But Saul’s experience isn’t typical, it isn’t the norm. That’s not how Christ chooses to get our attention. I think Saul in his blinded state is like a lot of us most of the time. Who knows how many times Christ has spoken to us through another – through the hungry man on the side of the road, the imprisoned mother, the addicted son, the abused daughter, the abandoned child, the elderly relative, the lonely neighbor, the grieving coworker, the foreigner waitress or farm worker – saying to us, “I am Jesus, the one you are harassing, the one you are persecuting, the one you are ignoring, the one you are looking down on, the one you are shaming, the one you don’t recognize, the one you are too blinded by pride or arrogance or prejudice to see”? Or, how many times have we been so caught up in trying to become who we think we’re supposed to be that we have let ambition, cultural values, economic security, fear of conflict, or even love of conflict keep us from being our authentic selves, and from hearing Jesus saying to us, “I am Jesus, the One who loves you just the way you are”?
And then, sometimes, Christ speaks to us like he spoke to Ananias. Times when we may perceive a nudge of the Spirit, a tug at the heart, something that convicts us that we should answer God’s call to open our minds, to offer help, to love those we perceive as enemies, which might even include our own self. Now we get the chance to put the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Saul is not the only person in this story who needs an unraveling. Ananias was a disciple of Jesus. Philip had taken the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to the Jews who were living to the north of Jerusalem, so there were already pockets of Christian disciples in Syria, including Damascus, where Saul was heading. When Christ spoke to Ananias and told him to find Saul and put his hands on him to restore his sight, his first response was that of self-preservation. “You want me to do what? You want me to go out myself to the person who has come here looking specifically for people like me so he can drag me off to prison and a religious inquisition which will probably result in my death?”
It seems that Ananias also has a bit of a pre-conceived notion about Saul. And, like we all probably tend to do at times, Ananias questions this call, and makes excuses. And we can relate, because we also don’t want to take risks to share our faith with people who scare us, or volunteer our time and talents for the fear of missing out on doing something more fun or important, or spend our money on things other people may need if it means giving up something we’ve been saving up for, or associate with “certain people” if it hurts our own popularity or social status. We’re pretty good at coming up with all kinds of excuses when God seems to be calling us to a new path. But Jesus isn’t having it with the questions or excuses. Christ commands him to Go! Telling him, “this man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.”
Both of these men have been called by God to experience an unraveling of who they thought they were, and of what they thought about the “other.” One experienced a blinding light followed by three days of darkness, in order to finally see clearly the path that God has chosen for him. The other wanted to talk his way out of following Christ’s Way, questioning whether this was really the path he had to take. Sometimes, we may need to be knocked off our horses like Saul, in order to confront the thoughts, behaviors and attitudes that cause us to make enemies out of those who don’t see things the same way we do, or those who don’t share the same religious or political or cultural values. May we, like Saul, be willing to humble ourselves enough to let God lead us to a new path of seeing each person as a beloved child of God. And sometimes, like Ananias, we may feel that nudge to be the answer to someone else’s prayers, and be tempted to let our fears, our ambitions, our pride or our pursuit of happiness keep us from being the person God is calling us to be – a person who is generous with our time, our resources, and our kindness; a person who is attentive to the needs of others; a person who is willing to offer help and healing and comfort. May we, like Ananias, find the humility and vulnerability to be a true follower of the Way.
The transformation from Saul to Paul was a dramatic one. But the blinding light and voice from heaven may keep us from seeing another important aspect of this transformation – it did not happen with God alone. Once God spoke to each of these men, it was only through their connection to each other – through relationship and community – that each finally found their true path, their true calling. Graduates, as you go out into the world, remember that you are not alone. This community of faith called Maple Grove goes with you in prayer. But there will be other communities of faith wherever you find yourself who would be happy to welcome you, and walk with you, and give you strength and courage for whatever path you find, and for becoming the person God has called you to be.
And friends, the church is the gift that Christ has given all of us to find our identity as disciples and world-changers. Saul found a new identity as Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and he found a new path as a missionary and church planter among the gentiles, those who didn’t grow up in a religious tradition of knowing God. Paul spoke of his conversion in his letters to the church in Corinth, and I love the way he phrases it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
What parts of your identity can you ask God to unravel today so that you can become part of a new creation? How is God calling you to make the world around you a better place, by instead of breathing threats and destruction, breathing words and acts of kindness and peace? Let’s pray:
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen, and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me? (The Summons, John Bell)
May 12, 2019 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: John 21:1-19
In today’s gospel reading, we have another post resurrection appearance by Jesus. After the dramatic events of Passover which included a last supper with Jesus, his arrest in the garden, and the betrayal and denial of his closest followers before being brutally beaten and executed, Jesus’ followers scattered for a time and then found their way back to that upper room where their world last made sense. Late on the day of his resurrection, as his disciples’ fears forced them to hide behind locked doors, Jesus appeared to them, bringing them peace and reassurance that he had conquered death and lives again. But just as he told Mary Magdalene in the garden not to hold on to him, and just as he had vanished from view of the two friends in Emmaus, almost as soon as they recognized him, so now, Jesus does not stay with the disciples. So his disciples do the only thing that makes sense – they return home to Galilee, to the lives they knew before Jesus; back to that same place where many of them first encountered Jesus when he met them as fishermen and invited them to “Come, follow me.” When Jesus appears to them in Galilee, it is with a surprise breakfast of fish and bread.
I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced a surprise breakfast before. Maybe that’s not really a “thing” here in Iowa, but when I was growing up in Mississippi, my mom threw me a surprise breakfast for my 16th birthday. I woke up that morning to a bedside of giggling friends, yelling “Surprise” and singing “Happy Birthday.” My mother had arranged it all with them, had even gone and picked up a few of my friends who didn’t drive, and had cooked breakfast for us, all before 6:00 am! (It was a school day, after all!) I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t believe my mom would go to that much trouble to do something that extravagant for me! By the time I had turned 16, I had already racked up a number of mistakes, and knew there were plenty of times that I had disappointed my parents and broken my mother’s heart. There were plenty of reasons, some seemingly small and some more serious – talking back, telling lies, staying out too late, pulling pranks that bordered on trespassing and vandalism, and the list could go on – reasons for my mother to have stayed angry at me; reasons I should have been grounded for life. And, as I recall, it was around that age that I flung terrible words at my mother, once. Words that, as I mother myself now, I understand how incredibly hurtful they are: “I hate you!” And so, on that morning of my 16th birthday, when the recognition hit me of all the things my mother had done to orchestrate this breakfast with smiling friends and painted toast, my first response was tears of shame, at the ungrateful, irresponsible, and unkind daughter I had been.
On this mother’s day, I think it’s fitting to think of Jesus there on the beach cooking up this surprise breakfast for his dear children – for the ones who have deserted him and denied him, and who undoubtedly are experiencing their own shame and regret as the realization finally and fully dawns on them of all that Jesus is and how he loves them.
As we look closer at today’s scriptures, I want to invite you to step into Peter’s shoes. Remember that even as Jesus warned Peter that his faith and courage would waiver, that before the dawn came after Jesus was arrested that Peter – the Rock – would deny Jesus three times, Peter indeed found himself huddled around a fire that night, and succumbed to self-preservation. Peter must be wrestling with his shame over his inability to remain faithful to Jesus, over his fear which led him to tell lies, denying that he even knew the man, over his regret that he abandoned Jesus the moment things began to get hard or real. As you imagine Peter’s struggle, I want to ask you to think about your own. When is the last time that something you did or failed to do left you feeling embarrassed or humiliated? What was it that left you feeling like you had failed to live up to a promise, or a something entrusted to you? Or, when was it that you last said or did something out of fear or anger that you really wish you could take back? As you take a moment to think about this, I invite you to acknowledge and confess this to Jesus silently as we pray:
Prayer: God with a mother’s heart, you gather us as your children. You comfort and hold us in your warm embrace. When we hurt your arms enfold us. When we are afraid your wings protect us. When we are hungry you feed us with the bread of life. Today, as we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to love you with our whole hearts, and as we confess the things we have done or left undone that have denied you, that have betrayed your love for us and for all of your creation, we ask for your love to come and heal our brokenness, and to restore our relationship with you and those whom we’ve hurt. Remind us that your love and mercy are new every morning. For this we give you thanks and praise. Amen.
So, how often does our regret leave us feeling guilty or ashamed? That’s the part of today’s gospel that I want us to focus on today. Peter is likely wrestling with guilt and regret over the way that he denied and abandoned Jesus. And these feelings would only be compounded in Jesus’ absence, without a way to make amends. Sometimes, when we are struggling with our own feelings over things that we regret or for which we are left feeling guilty, like Peter, we go back to what is comfortable. Peter seems to need to do something to take his mind off things, so he announces, “I’m going fishing.” Fishing is what Peter did before he met Jesus, before Jesus made him a fisher of people. And in this uncomfortable state that Peter finds himself, he goes back to what he knows. Maybe we do something similar when we are discomforted by our own failures – we begin to doubt or deny the person we think we’re supposed to be; we may tell ourselves we’re not really good enough to do that new thing, to be in that relationship or part of that group; we may talk ourselves out of trying too hard to take on something difficult. And so, we go back to what we know, back to what’s comfortable, back to our old habits, or our old ways.
I’ve mentioned before that in my early 20’s I found help for turning my life around through a support group that practiced the Twelve Steps. If you’re not familiar with the twelve steps of recovery, I encourage you to go home today and Google them. They were written specifically for those who needed a disciplined way to stop drinking; but they have been adapted and used by a variety of other support groups these days, and can even be a way to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith. After all, they are based on Christian principles! These steps begin with an admission, or confession of the problem, a belief in a Higher Power, and a decision to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God. The next few steps deal with a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” admitting our shortcomings to ourselves, God and others, and making amends to those whom we have harmed. I think this story of Peter’s encounter with Jesus is a wonderful example of the restoration that can come about as the result of making amends.
Peter is out on the sea, in the dark, wrestling with his shortcomings. What a metaphor! The sea can be stormy, tumultuous, deep with mystery and difficult to navigate – just like our human lives. And the darkness can represent our confusion, or the things that we hide, or the things that bring us pain or regret. And that regret can lead to shame. Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher who has written extensively on shame and vulnerability. You may be familiar with some of her books such as, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and her latest one, Braving the Wilderness. She has written, “Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
What Jesus does for Peter in this resurrection story is to restore Peter’s connection and relationship, both with Jesus, with the community and with himself. In essence, Jesus takes away any feelings of shame that Peter may be experiencing because of his failings. Notice that when Peter recognizes it is Jesus calling to them from the beach, he first covers himself. This may remind us of Adam and Eve in the garden after they have disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In becoming self-aware of our failings, we may be tempted to internalize the feeling of guilt to such a point that we let the failing itself define us as a person. If we give in to shame, we may begin to believe that as a person, we are worthless, that as a person we are a failure. I remember sitting around the table in those 12-step meetings and listening to person after person describe themselves in this way. And their descriptions echoed my own. I began to realize that from an early age, I had so internalized some of the most insignificant failings of my youthful self as something that was wrong with me! As if that’s just who I was – a disappointment, a failure, a rebel. I began labeling myself, and then acting like those labels. And it wasn’t long before other people started labeling me, and I began acting like those labels, too. Many of us who found ourselves struggling to life life in a healthy and productive way found that because of our shame, we had come to believe that we were unlovable, unforgivable, and unworthy. We lived out the rule of the self-fulfilling prophesy. We assumed that others thought we were just as much of a failure as we did. So we acted the way we expected that others’ thought of us, and then others’ thought of us that way.
According to Dr. Brown, shame can drive people to try to hide it or numb it; shame can lead to resentment, anxiety or depression; shame can erode relationships, destroy careers, and even cause physical harm. According to her research, the only way to end our shame is through vulnerability. Vulnerability looks like becoming honest with ourselves and others about our stories. She says, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
In the light of the dawn, Peter recognizes Jesus, and becomes vulnerable enough to throw himself into the water and swim for dear life towards Jesus, towards second chances, towards the hope of something new. On the beach, Jesus begins this work of restoration with table fellowship – with a breakfast of bread and fish. I can’t imagine how hungry Peter and the others must have been; so hungry for this opportunity to be nourished and fed again by their Lord; to be brought back together in community by the One who made them a community; and to be able to experience firsthand the presence of the Divine.
After breakfast, Jesus walks with Peter. To me, this is where the real miracle of the story happens – this is the real encounter with resurrection. Maybe Peter was hoping that Jesus wouldn’t say anything about, would just gloss over his mistakes. Isn’t that the way of it in our own relationships sometimes? We fail, we disappoint, and then we just ignore the other, or they ignore us, until – one day – the freeze out is over, they start talking to us again, and we just pretend that never happened. Or… we have huge argument about it. We keep score, we bring up all of the past mistakes, all of the other hurtful words that have ever been said; we punish, we resent, we hold grudges. But not Jesus. He neither avoids the topic, or uses it as a weapon. He simply invites reconciliation.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (vs. 15-17)
Jesus made it safe for Peter to return to the incident of his denial. Without blame or resentment or punishment, Jesus opens the door for Peter’s own interspection. With Jesus’ questions, Peter is able to make a searching, fearless moral inventory. Yes, three times I denied you. Yes, I abandoned you and everything you taught me. Yes, I forgot who I was, the purpose you gave me. You know everything. But Jesus also opens the door for Peter to reclaim his identity, for Peter to find renewed purpose. Fish for people. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. You are not a failure. You are my child. I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you.
In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, his appearances were not to multitudes of people like they were in the days when he was teaching on the hillsides. He appeared in the context of relationships, and fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread. He appeared at times when it was least expected; when hearts were broken, when hopes were dashed, when guilt and regret stood in the way of love and community. Jesus comes to us in the same ways today. What is it that is standing in the way of you seeing your place in the eyes of Jesus, your place in the context of family or community? Or, who do you know who is struggling today with a broken heart, a broken dream, or a broken life? Jesus still comes to us offering to be our Bread of Life, offering to heal our shame, offering grace upon grace to remind us that we are each a Beloved child of God.
05/05/2019 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35
It is the first day of the week, and three days have passed since Jesus’s death on the cross – long enough, in Jewish belief, for the soul to have left the body. Those who followed Jesus and believed him to be the Messiah, the one sent to deliver Israel from Roman domination and restore its earthly kingdom, have stayed in Jerusalem for three days after the Passover; now, they begin to return to their homes – disillusioned and disappointed. Despite Jesus telling them he would be raised from death, nothing has happened. They heard a rumor that some of the women claim that he is alive, but when John and Peter went to see for themselves, all they found was an empty tomb. It just doesn’t make sense. How could we have been so sure that this was the answer we’ve been waiting for? That God had finally heard our prayers and our hopes and dreams were finally coming true? And now, God just pulls the rug out from under us. It feels like a cruel joke.
We’re beginning a worship series today called, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Your Plans Fall Apart.” One thing our gospel lesson reminds us today is that we’ve all experienced times of disillusionment and disappointment. We’ve all gotten out hopes up for something, only to have our plans, or our world, fall apart. So in this series, we’ll be seeking to answer the questions, How do we move forward when our tightly-knit plans unravel into loose threads? What do we become when our identity—or the path we’re on—comes undone? What if all of this is not the end we fear it will be?
I want you to take a moment and think about the most recent time that you became disillusioned or disappointed. When is the last time your plans, or your world, started to become unraveled? Perhaps it came with an unexpected illness or injury; maybe it was a job or promotion that fell through, or a relationship that ended, or any other number of life situations that didn’t work out they way we had hoped. As you remember that sense of loss, those feelings of sadness or despair, don’t be afraid to confess silently to Jesus, to tell him about your disappointment, as we offer a prayer together:
[moment of silent prayer]
Our scripture today begins when Cleopas, a relative and follower of Jesus, along with his unnamed companion, set off on the road to Emmaus. They are leaving Jerusalem, their place of shattered dreams, their place of pain and disappointment, their place of grief. As they journey, they feel free to discuss their pain and disappointment with each other. It is good that they have one another for this journey, so that they don’t have to suffer alone, in isolation. It is also good that there is an openness, a vulnerability between these two friends, that makes it possible for them to be real with one another, to speak honestly about their grief and despair. There are no masks to be worn here, no reason to hide or pretend. This is what spiritual friendship looks like. In church lingo today, we may call this friend our accountability partner – that person who shares your faith, your beliefs, your values, and who is there to listen when you need to talk and who will offer encouragement and prayer and support. And you offer the same to them.
One of the first things I want us to hear from the text today is that this is a pattern for spiritual friendship that God expects us to have with others. Corporate worship can only take you so far on the journey of faith. We all need close spiritual friends with whom we can talk and share intimately about our struggles, our disappointments, our fears – as well as our joys and hopes. And, we need to learn to be this kind of spiritual friend to others – to be willing to listen and not cast judgment, to be a safe place where confidences are kept, and to be an encourager to others on their own journeys. Spiritual friendships like these most often develop out of smaller settings, out of Bible studies, Sunday school, and small groups, or out of conversations over coffee, or pie or even a beer. Remember that even though Jesus taught crowds of people, he gathered regularly with a group of 12, and had an even smaller inner circle of three – Peter, James and John, with whom he was even closer. If our faith is a journey, then who are the two or three close spiritual friends that you are journeying with?
As we return to our text, notice how, when a stranger begins to walk with these two friends they bring him into their conversation. Even though they didn’t know it at the time, this stranger was the Risen Christ. Their willingness to share openly with each other created an opportunity for Christ to join their conversation. Does that ever happen to you? Have you ever been willing to share something about your life or faith experiences with another, and as they begin to share something about their own life or faith, you suddenly recognize that this is a God-moment? That there is a divine presence in the conversation, that in connecting with another person in this way, you’ve somehow entered into a holy encounter with the divine?
Over the past few weeks, I have been privileged to have some of these encounters. They’ve occurred as I had coffee or lunch one-on-one with another, or as I sat and talked with a family in distress, or as I’ve listened to others ask or reflect on questions in our Wednesday small group. When we experience doubt, worry, fear, disillusionment, grief or disappointment, and then are willing to share those experiences with another in a search for hope, for answers, for God to help make sense of it all, then we’ve opened a door for God to step into that very situation, that very pain, and to take the unraveling and do some mending. Psalm 139 reminds us that God hems us in, before and behind. (v. 5) This is the next thing I want us to learn from this lesson today: God is always waiting for us to offer our doubts, our shattered dreams, our sense of loss, our pain and despair, to God; then, God can show us what resurrection looks like.
In the midst of the conversation, as Cleopas and his companion begin sharing their pain and disappointment with this stranger who has joined their journey, Jesus begins explaining the scriptures to them – explaining the whole God story. Theologian N. T. Wright imagines this part of the conversation, with Jesus saying, “Hasn’t it occurred to you that all through the Bible God allows his people to get into a real mess – slavery, defeat, despair, and finally exile in Babylon – in order to do a new thing? Isn’t that what the prophets and the Psalms were about as well? Passage after passage in which Israel is promised that God will rescue them from slavery, even from sin, and sometimes even from death – but first they have to go through it and out the other side? Well then, supposing that’s what had to happen to the Messiah himself, Israel’s personal representative?” (Lent for Everyone: Luke, Year C: A Daily Devotional. Westminster John Knox Press.) In other words, Jesus is giving them the new picture, the new pattern for faith. That even though our world is filled with pain and suffering, that even though our plans sometime become unraveled and world falls apart, that the holy work of resurrection and restoration occurs precisely out of such circumstances. It is only when we have let go of the other things we use to try to bring joy, healing, comfort, happiness, and admit the truth of our pain, our loss, and our need for restoration that God can begin to mend.
After a long journey of talking together, the two friends invite this new companion to share a meal with them. They’ve made a connection, a new friend, and so they extend their hospitality – welcoming him even further into their lives. I want us to consider honestly for a moment when we have made room for someone new in our lives? Have you ever asked a complete stranger into your home for a meal? That may be taking it a little too far, you may think. So let’s think about the context of our faith community. When is the last time you personally invited someone from church to your home for a meal, or to meet you for coffee, or lunch? In what other ways might God be calling each of us, individually, and the church as a whole, to be inviting others into our lives, into our homes, into our inner circles – for friendship, for community, for encouragement and support along the journey of life and faith? When is the last time you offered a meal to someone – someone grieving, someone recovering from surgery, someone dealing with a long-term illness or injury, someone that just had a baby, or someone who eats most of their meals alone? Aren’t we all hungry? Not just physically hungry, but aren’t we all longing for connection and relationship? Don’t we all have unravelings in our lives that need mending, and that it sure would be a relief to just talk to someone about?
When the friends invite this stranger to a meal, their eyes are finally opened to see that this is indeed Jesus when he becomes the host himself, taking the bread, as he had done before, blessing it, breaking it and sharing it with them. When Jesus broke the bread, something in themselves broke open. Hope welled up within them. What had seemed like an ending maybe wasn’t an ending at all. True, Jesus would not be there in the physical body to continue teaching and healing they way he had before. But Jesus wasn’t dead. Christ is alive! His teachings are true! The kingdom is real! And they’ve just had the privilege of experiencing it firsthand!
Rachel Held Evans, a 37 year old Christian author and progressive evangelical, died yesterday from complications due to an allergic reaction to antibiotics. She forged new paths for women in the more evangelical and fundamentalist denominations of Christianity, most of whom do not accept the authority of women to be pastors or faith leaders. She sort of rose to fame with her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. But the first book of hers that I read was a sort of memoir called, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church. I was drawn to it as soon as I saw the title, because I had had my own journey with losing and then finding my faith. You might say it was my own journey to Emmaus. I left behind the Jerusalem church of my childhood, where nothing made sense to me, the words I most often heard quoted from the bible were used as weapons to shame and denounce some, while being used to justify the power and control held by others. Many of us in the Christian community are grieving Rachel’s death. As one of my friends wrote yesterday, “I’m not one to be emotional about a person I’ve never met, but this one is very difficult. Feels like I’ve lost a friend.”
I want to share an excerpt from her book, Searching for Sunday:
“The very first thing the world knew about Christians was that they ate together.
“At the beginning of each week they gathered – rich and poor, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, women and men – to celebrate the day the whole world changed, to toast to resurrection. While each community worshiped a bit differently, it appears most practices communion by enjoying a full meal together, with special prayers of thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, for the bread and wine. They remembered Jesus with food, stories, laughter, tears, debate, discussion, and cleanup. They thanked God not only for the bread that came from the earth, but also for the Bread that came from heaven to nourish the whole world. According to church historians, the focus of these early communion services was not on Jesus’ death, but rather on Jesus’ friendship, his presence made palpable among his followers by the tastes, sounds, and smells he loved.”
She goes on to quote another writer, Barbara Taylor Brown:
“With all the conceptual truths in the universe at this disposal, Jesus did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself… ‘Do this,’ he said – not believe this but do this – ‘in remembrance of me.’”
“So they did.” (Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books.)
In the United Methodist church, we believe that in the sacrament of holy communion, when we share the broken bread and the cup of blessing, that we encounter the presence of the Risen Christ. Jesus used table fellowship to teach his disciples how to live in the kingdom of God. Jesus himself sits at the table, and everyone is invited to be fed with the Bread of Life; and to drink from the cup of salvation. When our world falls apart, Jesus says, let me fill your need, your hunger, with my Bread from heaven. As you remember my body being broken, remember that I know your own brokenness, your own pain, your own suffering. And I have overcome death and hell. So eat this bread, be filled with my love, my compassion, my strength, my hope. Let me quench your thirst for justice and righteousness with the cup of blessing, offering forgiveness for many. Eat and drink and be restored. I am with you. I will never leave you or forsake you. There is grace and mercy and healing at my table. And look, look at all those others sitting around the table with you. They are on this journey with you. You are not alone. You have a whole community of spiritual friends who also know what it is to experience pain, and loss, and discouragement. But they also know the miracle of resurrection. You are all my witnesses. So walk with each other. Invite strangers into your conversations. Tell them about the power of God’s love to heal and mend, to restore and bring new plans and new relationships to life, to give you a hope and a future.
When Cleopas and his friend realized what they were experiencing, they got up and ran back to Jerusalem, to tell the others their story of hope and resurrection. And when they arrived, they found out that others had also seen the Risen Christ – had their own resurrection stories. And so the church was born.
Prayer: Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent; abide with us, and with Thy whole Church. Abide with us in the evening of the day, in the evening of life, in the evening of the world. Abide with us in Thy grace and mercy, in holy Word and Sacrament, in Thy comfort and Thy blessing. Abide with us in the night of distress and fear, in the night of doubt and temptation, in the night of bitter death, when these shall overtake us. Abide with us and with all Thy faithful ones, O Lord, in time and in eternity. (A Lutheran prayer)
Sermons and other words from our pastor