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.

Why Do My Eyes Hurt?

A sermon based on Psalm 23 and Ephesians 5:8-14 preached on March 13th, 2016

Sermon audio

There’s a tale about a wise sage who is walking down the road, and a pilgrim approaches him.

Are you a saint?

the pilgrim asked.

No,

the wise sage replied.

Are you a god?

the pilgrim asked.

No,

the wise sage said.

Well, what are you

the pilgrim asked. The wise sage replied,

I am awake.

Most of the world’s religions say that God is always speaking. It’s just we who have to be awake to notice it.

Jesus told his disciples parables. Small stories told slowly with simple lessons. Much of the time, the disciples didn’t understand, but Jesus kept on telling them—perhaps hoping that one day they would know their meaning whenever the time was right, whenever they dared to step forward in their journey into bigger truth. It was through parables that Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom message:

The Kingdom of God is here. Closer than ever before. In fact, it’s breathing down your neck. So, wake up to its presence. For those of you with ears awake enough to hear, let them hear! For those of you with eyes awake enough to see, let them see!

Parables were Jesus’s way of shaking us alive—coaxing us out of the darkness and into the light. Becoming awake is always a possibility for us. It’s waiting around the corner. But the question is, Are we paying enough attention?

χ

Jesus’ invitation at the end of each one of His parables was

Come pay attention; the Kingdom of God exists right in front of you. Come pay attention!

Jesus said those words more than any others. That’s because the greatest gift we can give ourselves, others, and God is to pay closer attention. The best way to nurture something into being—to bring it to life—is to give ourselves in full to it. We are what we give of attention to. So being a disciple of Jesus is nothing if it’s not an act of paying closer attention over and over again. The trouble there, of course, is that is so easy to pay attention to wrong things. We get distracted easily. There’s lots that we lose ourselves in. We busy ourselves with small things, and we think being awake and paying attention means staying busy. We think sitting to rest and reflect is a kind of tuning out. But what if we have that backwards? What if all our busyness is actually a sort of sleepwalking; and what if sitting down to reflect, breathe, and rest is the path to wakefulness?

χ

When I did my year of hospital chaplaincy in Richmond ten years ago, I learned early on that the most effective way to reflect God’s presence to all those who had eyes to see, was to walk slowly. In a busy, level 1 trauma center, every doctor, nurse, tech was in constant hyper-drive. They had to be. Their job demanded it. And in and among the somewhat ordered chaos of a hospital, I could be a different presence for them, a reminder that slowing down, looking around, paying closer attention is the way of Jesus.

χ

Martin Luther King, Jr was a busy man. He had many places to be. Once he signed onto be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, life was never the same again. But even though there were many demands and expectations placed upon him, he too took the time to walk slowly in order to send a larger message. He spoke slowly in order to be heard. And on the evening of April 16th, 1963, as he was spending slow time behind a set of iron bars in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was addressed to the white clergy and other white Christian leaders of the day. And in it, King challenged them to speak up on behalf of their fellow Christians and clergy. He encouraged them to get behind him—to take up the cause of Civil Rights for all black Americans because the Gospel of Jesus Christ demanded it. In that letter, King expressed his disappointment in what he called their Do-Nothing-ism. He wrote:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

Rev. Dr. King knew that Jesus calls his people out from behind our comfort zones—to stand out in the brightness of day—to shed light upon the truth that stands right in front of us. And even though emerging from out behind the dark and anesthetizing security of our church’s stained glass windows and into the bright light of day might hurt our eyes, that pain is only temporary. Sometimes it takes a while, but our eyes must adjust to new rays of light.

χ

One of my very favorite movies is The Matrix, the first one of the trilogy. It stars Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishbone. It’s a sci-fi tale that poses the haunting question of whether or not all that we see around us is real. In the movie, the Matrix is the name of a computer simulated software program being fed into all of our heads, telling us that its real life.

There’s a John the Baptist figure in the movie whose name is Morpheus. Morpheus knows this computer generated Matrix isn’t real. He’s a prophet who goes around inviting people to wake up from this lie, urging them to wake up from their lifelong slumber and disconnect from this software program that’s feeding them lies. Morpheus is trying to open people’s eyes to the truth: the life they think they’re living isn’t life at all. Keanu Reeve’s character, Neo, is one of those people who wakes up to the truth. It’s much easier to stay asleep and believe the lies being fed to us. Waking up to the truth isn’t easy.

Once Neo wakes up to see the world as it really is and not as it had been fed to him by others, he asks Morpheus,

Why do my eyes hurt?

And Morpheus replies,

Because you’ve never used them before.

χ

How many of us would like to stay in our dark rooms, asleep, believing that life as it’s fed to us by the world is the way things really are? But Paul has a different vision to share with us:

Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—will shine upon you!…For once you were darkness. Now, in the Lord, you are light.

Jesus calls us out. The journey of discipleship—the faithful walk of every Christian is outward, from darkness to light. It’s about emerging from out behind our comfort zones, the anesthetizing security of our stained glass windows—and out into the world. To wake up from our slumber, clear our eyes of all those cobwebs, and doing the work of God for God’s people, in God’s world!

χ

Notice Paul’s language in verse 8. Paul doesn’t say,

For once you were in darkness. Now you are in the light.

He says,

For once you were darkness, and now you are light.

We aren’t called to be children who live in light. We are children of light. Once darkness was something we had inside of us. It was internal. It’s something we were. Something that penetrated to the core of our being. But now, with Jesus, we are light! That light shines out from the very center of us. And it lights not only our way, but we challenged to walk with others and illumine their way, too!

χ

When my brother and I were in grade school, my dad was our alarm clock. He would walk into our rooms and slam open the curtains so the rising sun shone right into our eyes. And whenever I would try to hide my face from the rays of light with my blankets, he would tear them off the bed, all the while singing a Good Morning song. All these shenanigans would happen way too early in the morning! All we wanted was 15 more minutes of sleep, but my dad’s wake up call never allowed for that. We knew that his rude arrival into our rooms meant that it was time to start paying attention to the day—to open our eyes and our ears to another morning. And every morning, I made my way to the bathroom, stumbling forward, wiping my eyes because I hadn’t used them yet.

χ

Our calling as Christians is to pay closer attention—to become awake, to have eyes to see and ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us. The life of a Christian is made up of moments of stumbling forward. It’s made up of moments where we blunder onward—sometimes gracefully, but mostly not—from waking moment to waking moment. Sometimes we catch ourselves asleep in our daily patterns. Other times, we remember Christ’s invitation at the end of each of His parables: Awaken to the Kingdom that’s breathing down your neck!

Jesus wants us to ask for clearer vision and wider lenses so we can better pay attention to the in-breaking of light, because that’s a sure sign that God’s Kingdom is on earth just as it is in Heaven. Following Jesus is an act of opening ourselves up to the world—to allow every bit of it to surprise us awake, to stir us from our slumber. And being a disciple is first and foremost an act of paying closer and closer attention over and over again.

χ

Friends, in these last weeks of Lent, draw closer to the Message of the Gospel. Walk beside Jesus as He makes His way to the cross. Find out what’s pleasing to the Lord, and give all your being to it. Don’t mistake being busy with being awake, but give yourself to slowing down and waking up.

There’s an Easter light up ahead, but first, first, we must be faithful and stumble forward with Jesus through a few more days of darkness.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s All. Our All.

A sermon based on Exodus 4:10-12 and Psalm 103 preached August 16th, 2015

Sermon audio

There are just some ideas out there that are so big—so magnificent—that they demand a new word to describe them. It’s a good thing, then, that the English language is fluid. It’s constantly changing. We make up words all the time!

One of my favorite TV shows from the 90’s was Mad About You with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. It’s some of the funniest comedy writing there ever was. Every once in a while, the Paul Reiser character would make up a word that fit so well and makes so much sense that you would have to wonder why nobody ever used it before. My favorite example of this was when he was he was trying to pay a compliment to a train steward. When everyone else was only complaining to this poor guy about how terrible the trip had been, Paul Reiser’s character speaks up:

You’re doing a great job! I’m not sure what these people are angry about. I’m not disgruntled at all. In fact I’m gruntled—I’m extremely gruntled. Keep up the good work!

Paul Reiser was once asked in an interview,

What’s your favorite word?

And he replied,

This is my favorite thing that needs a word: You know when you floss and a little something always lands on the mirror? That. That needs a word.

λ

Comedians like Paul Reiser tend to pay attention to those small things we overlook and have no words for, but sometimes we don’t have words for things because they’re too big for words. Sometimes there’s an ideas so big, so allusive, so filled with awe, that no word we could ever make up, no matter how big it is or how great it sounds, could ever do it justice. And when we bump up against the outer edges of our language like that—when we find there is nothing we have that offers justice to such a wondrous thought—that’s when we resort to poetry. And that’s where the Psalms come in. The Psalms are filled with visions that—even though they’re brought to us with words—are so much bigger than anything we could ever say. That’s because praise is bigger than language.The praise we offer to God—the praise God is always worthy of—can never be uttered with human lips but can only overflow from our hearts. Sometimes, though, we must try to put words to our expansive praises, and Psalm 103 wants to do that twice. It has two new words to teach us: Hesed and Nephesh. Hebrew scholars have tried to translate the Hebrew word Hesed at their own peril. In our reading for the day, it’s translated as “faithful love.” It’s a word reserved throughout the bible to describe God’s great love for us. Some other translations take a stab at it with the phrase “loving kindness,” but it also has a sense of loyalty to it—it means that God is always loving and merciful and kind and loyal. And because the word hesed means so much all at once, some people simply leave it untranslated, because no other words can do it justice.

The second word in Psalm 103 we need to wrestle with is Nephesh. It also is too big for any of our words, but I think our reading puts it well. Nephesh means “our whole being”—everything we’re made of.

Let my whole being bless the Lord! Let everything I’m made of bless God’s holy name!

That’s how Psalm 103 starts, and in a way it’s what the entire 22 verses are about. This psalm is an attempt to put words around God’s all-encompassing love and what our appropriate response to such a big love should be, bringing our whole being—absolutely everything we are, our entire selves—to God in praise! And this is where I start making up words: This psalm is about allness. And because God has given God’s allness to us, we are to bring our allness to God.

λ

Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear, but at 19 months-old she contracted what may have been meningitis or scarlet fever and it left her both deaf and blind. With the sudden loss of her sight and her hearing, she relied upon her 6 year-old friend, Martha Washington, who somehow understood the signs Helen made and translated them for her family.

Helen had a hard time learning sign language. She didn’t understand that every object had a word uniquely identified with it, but her big breakthrough came the day her teacher ran her hand under cool water then made the sign for water in her hand.

After that Helen demanded the names everything around her. Her thirst for knowledge became insatiable. Helen Keller grew to be a teacher; an author; and an activist. She once wrote,

My heart cries out with longing to see these things. If I can get so much from mere touch, how much more must be revealed by sight.Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that, in the world of light, the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.

Helen Keller also became a highly sought after speaker. She learned how to speak by touching people’s lips as they talked and placing her hands on peoples’ throats so she could feel the vibrations speech made.

You could say that although blind and deaf (and for some part of her life, mute), Helen Keller made her way through the world seeing and hearing more clearly than any one of us. Her blind eyes saw more than sight can give us to see, and her deaf ears heard more than our hearing can give us to listen. Helen Keller’s witness makes me wonder what we miss looking for because we see too much—what we do not listen for because we hear too much.

λ

Moses had a thick tongue and a slow mouth. Moses was sure he wasn’t the one God needed for a spokesperson. He was the exact wrong choice for that job. God heard all of the excuses Moses threw out there, and God had a comeback for each and everyone. God replied to all of Moses’ objections by saying,

Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I who do that?

God told Moses He would help him speak. God promised to Moses all the gifts he thought he lacked, and God promised to be all that Moses needed.

Now go,

God told Moses,

I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.

And as our psalm says,

God made His ways known to Moses.

λ

This psalm is about God’s all-inclusive and far-reaching greatness. It’s even 22 lines long, a line for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so even in its form, this poem is complete—it’s an A to Z song of praise to how complete God’s love of us is—how comprehensive God’s power is, how all-encompassing God’s promises are! I think that’s deserving of a new word like Allness.

λ

But this psalm isn’t just a song of praise, it also demands something of us. We can’t read a song like this and just say,

Well isn’t that a nice thought.

The Psalms don’t want us watching from the sideline, they want us to jump in with our whole being and live them out over and over again in our own lives. Psalm 103 doesn’t simply praise God for giving us His all, it demands from us that we give our all to God. This psalm asks us to take our whole being and every bit of our lives and offer it as a form of praise to God. To bless God with every choice we make and every bit of who we are. With the words of this song, we are challenged to love others with the same allness that God loves us with. God’s all. Our all. The way we love is simply an echo of the same love that God has always shown us. It’s simply an outgrowth of the joy we have when we spend our lives praising God. We make Psalm 103 come alive again when we throw all of who we are into unrestrained praise.

λ

It’s almost time to cover up our pools and pack up our summer for another day. Fall is ahead of us. My favorite time of year!

In the coming months, the leaves will change colors and make the world a brighter place, and our views a little sweeter. The changing colors of Autumn, the bright oranges and yellows and browns, are like Fall’s fireworks, popping out of every branch on every tree—giving us something magnificent to be in awe and wonder about… that’s if we slow down enough to see them—to really see them. Sometimes, that’s a big if. But we with eyes to see such things must take the time to do so. Helen Keller could see more than we see—hear more than we hear because she took slow time to notice the small wonders around her, and she let it all astonish her!

λ

Psalm 103 begins and ends with praise. The psalmist declared aloud for all around her to here:

Let my whole being bless the Lord!

God has given His allness for us. Let’s give our allness to God. In grateful response to the good news of this psalm, let’s walk slower.

Let’s take a page out of Helen Keller’s playbook and see more, listen everywhere we go, and take slow time to be astonished by the small wonders around us, and may we utter new words of praise to our God!

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

Alleluia! Amen!