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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Through Ananias’ Eyes

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and Acts 9:1-20a preached on May 8th, 2016

Sermon audio

What else is there but the tug inside your heart? That feeling of being pulled in a direction that surprises everyone you know—most of all yourself. That’s all Ananias could say about it.

Ananias was a follower of the Way—what people now call a Christian. He knew that when Jesus came tugging at his heart, it was something he couldn’t ignore. Jesus is kind and patient, but also unrelenting and tenacious.

Ananias knew that the first thing Jesus does to a person—or at least what He did to him—is He injects them with a strong dose of humility. That’s what Jesus does to a heart. He calms it. Reduces it. Jesus announces your place in the family of things. When Jesus grabs of hold of somebody, that somebody becomes both smaller and bigger all at once. That is to say, all the world becomes bigger, and you become smaller, and all the sudden, the world isn’t yours anymore—it’s God’s and you’re just a little part of it. This was hard for Ananias to describe to anyone who asked, but it was true.

And, as it would turn out, Saul—yes, THE Saul, the one who went around murdering Christians—Saul, of all people(!), would be the next person to realize how Jesus does all that. Also, as it would turn out, Ananias would be the one chosen by Jesus himself to nurture Christ in Saul—help him make sense of what Jesus does to a person whenever He enters into their heart. The best way Ananias knew how to describe it is it’s a sense of being pulled in a brand new and completely surprising direction.

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You have to excuse Ananias for being fearful of what Jesus asked him to do. For all these years, he and his follow Jesus followers would flee in the other direction whenever they heard Saul was headed their way. Saul was a tornado of a man, reckless and powerful, he was by all accounts a Christian-killer, a murderous man who breathed threats against Jesus’ church. He was hell-bent on exterminating every Christian he could round up.

So when Ananias heard from the Lord in a vision that THE very same Saul was now a converted Jesus-follower, it was like telling a black man to go to the house of the Grand Dragon Wizard of the KKK and knock on his door, promising him that everything after that would go smoothly for him. It was almost impossible for Ananias to believe! But Ananias trusted the voice he heard. He trusted that it belonged to Jesus, and Jesus would never lead him astray, so out Ananias went to find a house along Straight Street. It was the home of a fellow Christian whose name was Judas (not THAT Judas, mind you, but another one), and there Saul would be. The Spirit of Jesus told Ananias that Saul was blinded by a bright light and something like scales covered his eyes. Ananias hadn’t heard of anything like that before, but all of this sounded strange, so what did it matter anyway? It’s important to mention that Ananias was at first dubious, to say the least. He talked back to the Lord, which was something only brave people do, but what Jesus was asking Ananias to do sounded like crazy talk to him, so he put up a fight. But we all know who won that fight. Jesus did. So Ananias packed his things and went!

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Flannery O’Connor once wrote of Saul,

I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him straight off his horse.

See, some people need something drastic to happen to them to change their hearts and minds about things.

Most of us who call ourselves Christians experience something much less violent than that, though. We aren’t so much knocked off a horse, or dragged to the ground by Jesus kicking and screaming like Saul was. Jesus comes inside much more slowly—over time. So you can be excused if the way Jesus came into your life is nothing like what Saul experienced. Saul’s conversion experience is way out of the ordinary, but that man needed something big to happen to him—to get his attention all at once! Jesus had to throw that man down to the ground, blind him with something like scales over his eyes, and yell at him to get his attention. For the rest of us, though, Jesus doesn’t do anything quite that drastic; He doesn’t come violently rushing into our lives like that. It’s more like Jesus sweetens our lives like honey does a cup of hot tea, if you’ll allow a metaphor. He drizzles in, little by little, He blends Himself in, until the whole cup of tea tastes and smells like Him.

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When Ananias arrived at Judas’ home on Straight Street, he got right to work. It was clear that Jesus was serious about him nursing Saul back to health again—getting him trained up and taught all about Jesus.

Jesus came into Saul’s life so fast, it hurt. Saul didn’t even know who he was anymore, and that made sense, because, like I said before, when Jesus comes in, He changes around everything. And with one look at Saul, Ananias knew that Saul had no idea which way was up.

For one, the old Saul couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The old Saul was full of vile words, and he spit whenever he said them. He was a force no one cared to reckon with. But now it was different. The person Ananias met was silent, confused, tired—not even able to get up out of bed. You might even say he was even meek and helpless. Ananias hoped that meant that even when Saul regained his strength, he’d still be like that. God can do those sort of things, you know! God can knock all the nonsense out of anyone if He wants to!

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Well, the days passed slowly, but after 3 of them, those things that looked like scales over Saul’s eyes fell off, and he could see again. He stopped mumbling too so Ananias could finally understand what he was saying. Ananias would never forget the first clear words out of his mouth,

I want to be baptized.

You know how whenever you baptize someone, you say their name out loud? Well, Ananias took Saul down to the river, gathered some water in his hand, all ready to baptize Saul, said his name, and all at once, Saul cut him off and said,

My name’s not Saul anymore. I’m a new man now. God has done something wonderful to me. Please, call me ‘Paul.’

So that’s what Ananias did. He said,

Paul, child of God. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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More time passed.

So many of us think that Paul was struck dumb and blind, was dragged into some house on Straight Street, got cured of his blindness, and all the sudden knew everything he needed to know about how to go out and talk to the world about Jesus. The account of all this that you can read in the book of Acts makes it sound that way, but that’s not how it went at all. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul writes it down himself, saying that it took something like 14 years in all to be raised up in Jesus. Paul sat with Ananias for a few of those years. Each and every day, Ananias would share more stories about Jesus with him.

Later, Paul traveled long distances to meet up with other Christian leaders like Cephas and Barnabas, and he studied and prayed under their care. Raising up a Christian isn’t anything that happens all at once. I’m sure you know that. It takes years of study and dedication. It takes parents and teachers and mentors. It also takes a hunger to learn from all those parents and teachers and mentors. But through all that teaching, and studying, and worship, and prayer, Jesus sinks in, deeper and deeper, into our hearts and minds, and changes us from the inside out. That’s what you could see in Paul. All that anger and rage was left behind, and each day, Ananias and his other teachers recognized the wonder and awe and joy starting to take him over. That’s how Jesus works! The fancy word for that is transformation if you care to know, but most people just like to call it God’s grace.

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So, what does this all have to do with you and me? It has to do plenty with all of us sitting here today all these years later. See, this story isn’t really about Paul. This story is about God. This is how God works in all of us.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be thrown down to the ground and struck blind like Paul was. God approaches us like we need him to. And God help him, Paul needed to be confronted in the way he was. Hopefully Jesus won’t ever have to do that to any one of us! But just the same, Jesus changes lives. He interrupts us and makes house calls! Jesus comes knocking on the door of our hearts and minds, and once He starts, He doesn’t stop until we let him in! Jesus is stubborn that way! But the truth is, we’re all stubborn, too! Much more stubborn sometimes than Jesus is! Sometimes we don’t even know He’s knocking. Other times, we just ignore the knocks, because we like to do it all without Him inside bothering us—and the one thing Jesus will always do, once he’s inside, is bother us! Jesus refuses to be ignored once he’s made His way through the door! Most of the time, we’d just rather Him shut up, but Jesus never stops talking to us. It’s just us who stop listening to Him.

My advice, if you want it? Don’t ever stop listening for Jesus!

The faithful task—and I call it that because it’s hard work!—is to try your level best to keep yourself open to everything that Jesus is doing in you and around you. That’s the truth of it all—seen through Ananias’ eyes, anyway.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Finding Emmaus

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-25 preached on April 3rd, 2016.

Sermon audio

It’s easy to get lost on your way to Emmaus. It’s a hard place to find because it’s really not a place you can find on a map anymore. People have their hunches where it used to be, but there’s a problem with that, too. Depending on what Christian tradition you come from or listen to, Emmaus could be one of more than five different points on your map, and each one is pretty far from the other. Some ancient copies of Luke’s gospel say that Emmaus is 160 stadia (or 31 kilometers) from Jerusalem and some others say it’s only 60 stadia. And in what precise direction? No one knows that either. It’s somewhere between Jerusalem and Galilee. The rest is up to you to figure out.

But let’s say you were on a trip to the Holy Land and you took a stab at it. The best guidebook on the market, one written by Jerome Murphy O’Connor, whittles the most likely spots down to four. You could start with any one of them—and in no particular order you could drive down each one. On one of them, you’d drive up a hill and you’d see a blue sign that says “Crusader Church” with a really helpful arrow pointing the way, but all you’d find ahead of you is a small cinderblock school house. Nobody would be there. It’s abandoned.

So at that point, you might decide to turn around thinking you’ve missed something, and before you recognized where you even started from, you’d find yourself at a dead end. And at that point, you’d figure out that all of the road signs were wrong. None of them are of any help at all. And if you weren’t frustrated out of your mind already, you’d try to find the next Emmaus. There’s three more to go. “Which Emmaus is real? Is there even an Emmaus at all?” Those are some of the questions you might start to wonder.

We had hoped.

Those three words should stand out to us in this passage. Along with “It is finished,” and “Jesus wept,” they’re some of the saddest words in all of scripture.

Two of Jesus’ disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed one, are walking away from Jerusalem. It’s a few days after the important people hung their Master from a tree. They may have seen Jesus take his last breath. They may have seen His head fall to His chest. They may have stuck around to see Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, put Him in a tomb, sealing its entrance with a gigantic stone. And now they’re walking away from it all. It’s over. For 3 years, they followed this man. They loved Him. They invested themselves in Him. Dropped their jobs, left their families, gave it all up. And what’s left to show for it?

We had hoped,

they said.

All that’s left are the shards of things. The broken promises. The jagged edges of memory. Their crushed expectations. They had come all this way with Him—for Him—and the signs were all wrong! So, dejected, they made their way home along the Emmaus Road.

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It’s one thing to have faith in a person—someone who you can see, someone with eyes that look at you, and a mouth that speaks to you, and hands that reach out to touch yours. It’s another thing entirely to have faith in a resurrected Savior. That first kind of faith can prove itself well in lecture-rooms and science labs. It can be measured by observers and witnessed by companions. But faith in a resurrected Savior, that’s a different thing. That kind of faith takes a new sort of vision. A whole different sort of witnessing. Faith in a person who walks with you down all your dusty roads, yet doesn’t leave the footprints to prove it. That’s another matter entirely. With eyes of faith, we see Jesus walking beside us, or at least we hope that’s what He does, but sometimes we’re unsure about that. And most times, we’d never dare share such a thing aloud, lest everyone else think we’re out of our minds. But Jesus is our travel companion. Silent most of the time, but still somehow speaking. That’s what Cleopas and his fellow travel companion found out as they walked down the Emmaus Road. At some point along their journey, a third person walks up to them. They strike up a conversation. Jesus says nothing about Himself, he just asks questions and listens.

I wonder what prevented them from noticing that it was Jesus. Did Jesus have a hood over his face, or were all three of these men looking down at the ground as they walked along—too eager to get to their destination to notice anything along the way? It wasn’t until they stopped for the evening, set up camp, and sat down for a meal together that Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple notice that this whole time, it was Jesus who walked this long road with them. Until that moment, their eyes were kept from seeing. Think the Lord’s Supper. Think the feeding of the 5,000. How many times before has it taken food broken, blessed, and shared for people to recognize Jesus? We don’t have fingers enough to count!

Then at all once, their eyes were opened. Passive tense: they didn’t open their own eyes, something outside of them opened up something new in them and suddenly they saw! And just as quickly as they saw Jesus He vanished from their sight—who knows how or what that looked like—but all at once, Jesus disappeared.

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Imagine you’re speaking with a woman who has just given birth. Having never given birth before, you ask her,

What was it like?

What would she say? She might share with you how wonderful and joyful it was. Then in the next breath she might tell you about the pain, describing it as far beyond anything she’s ever felt before. She would probably tell you she felt frightened out of her mind. Then you might say to yourself,

How could anything be frightening and joyful at the same time. That makes no sense.

She might also tell you that she feels exhausted but at the same time also full of love. You’ve never experienced those two emotions together before, so you have a hard time imagining anything close to it, but you know she’s telling you the truth because she seems sincere, and who could make up anything like that anyway? Who would ever put those two emotions together that way? Other mothers can come along and hear that and say,

I know just what you mean!

So, how do you describe the greatest event in history: the resurrection of Jesus to someone who doesn’t know? At least there are plenty of mothers out there who understand what childbirth is like. But what if you’re a witness to this one point in history, along the road? The Risen Jesus walks with you, asks you questions about Himself, shares a meal with you, and then vanishes? Who’s ever going to believe a thing like that? And what words are there to convey that experience and all of its emotions to others who weren’t there to experience it for themselves? How would you share it with anyone? What words are big enough for that? And why should you expect anyone to believe you?

We all have personal experiences where we meet Jesus. We could open up the floor and have all of us share our encounters with the Risen Lord, and if 45 spoke, we’d have 45 different stories—not a one like the other, which adds to each story’s authenticity.

Luke is the only gospel to share this story of Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple encountering the Risen Christ as they walk along the Road to Emmaus. If all the other gospel writers wrote about a Jesus-sighting along this same road, in the exact same way, with identical words, that would make me think something was rigged. That would mean that the four gospel writers were swapping notes with one another, making sure that their stories matched up. And that would make me more skeptical. But that’s not what we have. What we have are four unique stories of encounters with the risen Jesus, told so differently that they must have been much more concerned about sharing what they experienced and saw and felt for themselves, because that’s what people do when they’re sharing their hearts with others—they get to the edge of language, not fully able to convey with words what they witnessed, so what we get is their clumsy attempt to give words to an experience that is really beyond words. That’s when we start listening with our ears perked up because we know that we’re hearing a lone witness doing their best to tell their Jesus story,—trying to describe what happened along the road to Emmaus with words big enough for us to find our way there, too.

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From my own vantage point, I see that there are much more than four ways to Emmaus. We are all Cleopas’ unnamed companion, and we walk down 10,000 wandering and winding, twisted and treacherous roads. Emmaus didn’t happen just once; and it doesn’t exist in one spot on a map. Emmaus happens whenever hope and mystery, joy and disappointment, doubt and faith commingle. Emmaus exists everywhere, and at every turn! Emmaus happens when a way is made out of no way; when God takes our closed hearts and minds and pries them open to show us glimpses of Jesus—even if just momentary ones before He vanishes from our sight.

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The visionary poet, Walt Whitman concluded in his sprawling poem Song of the Open Road with these words:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

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If you’re traveling across the Holy Land, you may never find Emmaus. It’s one of those things where you might drive right passed it but never realize it. But it’s not so important to find it anyway. Emmaus isn’t somewhere. It’s everywhere. And it doesn’t so much matter where you walk as much as it matters who walks with you.

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

Alleluia! Amen.