Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

ο

No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

ο

It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

ο

There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

ο

Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Advertisements

Stubborn Faith

A sermon based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Psalm 27 preached February 21st, 2016

Sermon audio

Malala Yousafzai is a household name. You may have read her book I Am Malala, but even if you haven’t, you are familiar with her story. Malala is a 17-year-old girl who was born halfway across the world in the Swat district of Pakistan into a Muslim family. As destiny (or maybe God) might have it, her first name, Malala, means grief-stricken. At the age is 11, Malala began blogging. For those of you who don’t know what blogging is exactly, it’s writing essays and insights about things on a website that belongs to you.

Malala didn’t blog about the regular fair of life as an 11-year old girl. No swoony prose about her favorite boy band, or the cute guy in class. No, she chose to blog about education, namely her belief that education was a right that every Pakistani boy and girl should have. Because this is such an explosive topic in her culture, for her own protection and that of her family, she decided to write her blog under a male pseudonym, Gul Makai. That was back in 2009. It wasn’t long after that when the Taliban took over her village. They banned TV, music, women from going shopping, as well as women from gaining an education. Malala continued blogging. For her outspokenness, she received death threats. Her father wanted to move Malala to a boarding school where she would be safer, but she refused, saying to her father,

I don’t know why, but hearing I was being targeted did not worry me.

Since Malala refused to change schools, her father told her to stop her blogging campaign. But, she refused that too, saying to her father,

How can we do that? You were the one who said that if we believe in something greater than our own lives, then our voices will only be multiplied if we are dead. We can’t disown this campaign.

Stubborn girl.

Malala was shot on October 9th, 2012. The Taliban tracked her down at her school, “Which one of you is Malala?,” the terrorist demanded, gun in hand.

Speak up, or I’ll shoot at you all.

But even a bullet to the head couldn’t stop Malala. Three months later, she was out of the hospital, speaking up for the right of every Pakistani boy and girl to receive an education. Only now, she has a microphone. And she’s changing the world with it.

η

Whom shall I fear?

Malala, or anyone else who takes a stand on an issue and speaks up, does so with a heart beating so loud and fast, they swear it was about to leap out of their chest. That’s because courage is never the opposite of fear. Courage is fear with a stubborn faith. Courage is fear that has said its prayers.

When we get to a point where speaking up for what we know to be true and right and just is the only way to make things right, we realize that somethings are a whole lot more important than fear or even our own safety. Think Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass. Jesus. Each of them stubborn people who believed in something greater than all the other people around them. Who didn’t let that stop them. Each of them practiced a stubborn faith.

η

The word courage comes the Latin cor, which means heart. Courage is the strength to tell our stories with all of who we are, with our entire heart.

The writer of psalm 27 is face to face with his enemies. They’re just around the corner, or maybe they’re already there, surrounding him. He has no idea what might happen to him, but even as his enemies descend upon him, he keeps his eyes focused upon God.

The psalmist asks not for his own strength, skills, and expertise to get him through, but he asks that God grant him the strength to see God first, to seek God’s face come what may, and to wait confidently for God to see him through. The psalmist is under no delusion that his faith in God means that nothing bad will ever happen to him. He’s lived too long to believe a naïve thing like that. He prays instead that even as his enemies draw closer, God would stay with him—to be his Light and Salvation.

Wait for the Lord,

the psalmist declares! He’s reminding himself that even as darkness descends upon him and the shadows of his enemies cave in around him, that real strength comes from somewhere else. It comes when we use our life to seek God’s way for us. The psalmist declares in verse 4,

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to gaze upon His beauty, and to seek Him in His temple.

Mahatma Gandhi (now there’s another name to add to our list of people with a stubborn faith), Gandhi once declared that our whole lives are like circuits around a temple. This psalmist isn’t necessarily saying,

Let me make my way to the temple in Jerusalem.

He’s using a metaphor, saying that when we allow God in, when we allow God to be our all-in-all, no matter where we go, each and every one of our steps will be like a circuit around God’s temple. And even on our bad hair days, when nothing seems like it’s working out for us—bad hair weeks, bad hair months, years, our lives are filled with them—we would do best to read a psalm like this one, because it tells the truth about us AND the truth about God: that even when we feel like we are being devoured by the darkness, there’s light somewhere—maybe up way far ahead, but still it’s there. And we would do well to listen to our hearts as they tell us to seek God’s face.

Take heart, wait for the LORD!

That’s stubborn faith.

It might be though, that the phrase “stubborn faith” is redundant. Isn’t faith at its heart something stubborn? Doesn’t faith keep on going long after we’ve given everything else a try? Maybe. But maybe it’s that after we use all of our own tricks and standbys, we start to lose our faith. That’s where our psalmist is at. He’s out of ideas and the only way he’s gonna make it out of this one is if God leads the way.

η

Take heart! Wait for the Lord!

We’d do well to make that a mantra. Maybe we too can develop a faith that’s bigger than our fear. Maybe then, we wouldn’t so much ask God to take all the hard stuff and move it out of our way, but instead ask God for the strength of character to overcome what’s in our way. Maybe instead, we could pray for a sort of courage that’s bigger than all the hard stuff. Courage is the strength to walk forward into our own stories with all of who we are, with our entire heart. Shame researcher, Brené Brown, says that the most accurate measure of courage is vulnerability. We are at our most courageous when we put it all out there, every bit of ourselves, and trudge forward into the future that God will make for us.

Stubborn faith.

η

When I think about stubborn faith, I think of the story of Casie René Bernall, who at the age of 17, Malala’s age, was killed by a troubled classmate, Eric Harris, at Columbine High School. 1999. Eric Harris pointed a gun at her head and asked Casie if she believed in God. Casie said Yes. Who do we trust even in the midst of fear? Trust and fear, they’re not opposites. They co-exist. But trust takes fear and gives it a voice—a declarative voice. A voice that says Yes to God even under fire. I only pray to have that kind of faith.

η

Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, calls doubt the ants-in-the-pants of faith. We’re only human after all. This psalm begins with

The Lord is my Light and my Salvation—whom shall I fear?

The psalmist isn’t saying he has no fear. He’s praying that because he’s racked with fear that God might come closer and take his fear away from him. He’s not bragging. The psalmist is asking God to give him something he doesn’t have and cannot muster for himself no matter how hard he tries. See, wherever doubt lurks, we can welcome it in because doubt is never the opposite of trust or faith. Its doubt that gives us a chance to refine our understanding of God, to come closer to Him. Doubt is the thing that has us ask better questions about our faith. Doubt is the beginning of stubborn faith.

η

We wonder, just like the psalmist, what lies up ahead for us. We wonder about the future of our church. The dwindling numbers; more funerals than baptisms. Every church in our country is experiencing this same thing.

Where’s the money going to come from? Something needs to change,

we say. But when we ask ourselves a slightly different question,

Who wants TO change?,

no hands go up.

What if we took a risk to walk forward into our uncertain future, like the psalmist did? What would the fruits of stubborn faith look like for us? What would be different if we threw out caution and comfort, and replaced it with courage? What would we do differently? What kind of decisions would we make with how we spent our money? If we moved forward with stubborn faith as our guide, what risks would we take here at Kuhn Memorial for the sake of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ? We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.

η

Can I ask that as a whole church, that we begin praying for the ability to step out, to walk forward with stubborn faith, and risk something for Jesus? Can I ask you to imagine what that might look like? Use your imagination. God wants us to.

Maybe it means stepping out beyond these doors and shaking hands with our neighbors. Or maybe it means taking the chance to speak out on behalf of a few people in Barboursville who don’t have a voice or a say in important matters. I know that all that sounds scary and new, but what if we found out that God’s blessings are hidden behind everything we call scary and new? What if we took the chance to speak out on behalf of Jesus even if our voice shakes while we do it? Doesn’t that sound like stubborn faith? Doesn’t that sound like being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

All praises to the One Who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.