Sermon for the Second Sunday of Eastertide
When I told a friend of mine that I would be preaching the Sunday after Easter, he said, “Hey, don’t worry! No one shows up the Sunday after Easter anyway!” So on that note, thanks for being here today! 😉
But really, a lot of people think the story of Jesus stops at Easter. On Easter we wear pretty pastel colors and some wear fancy hats and we hug and cry aloud, “Jesus is alive! He is risen!” and tell people we love them more than usual because the good news is that death has been conquered. Wow. Can you believe it?! The powers of death have been defeated and the empire shall not have the last word and–holy moly–the women are the ones to whom the gospel, the good news, was shared first! Golly gee, that sounds splendiferous, doesn’t it? What a way to end the tale that stands the test of time! A story for the ages! An epic! Rejoice!…right??? “But wait…there’s more!” to the story of following in Jesus’ footsteps and learning to encounter the Divine in the “other.” “But wait…there’s more!” as we slowly realize that, boy! we thought following in Jesus’ footsteps was hard, but recognizing the risen, resurrected Christ is often even harder.
We’ve just finished the season of Lent leading up to Easter, a time of “spring cleaning for our souls” that shows us where the centers of our lives are and helps us focus on Jesus, clearing out the junk layered by years of becoming desensitized to oppression and abuses of privilege. In this season, we have prayed, fasted, been more intentional in our rituals and with our relationships; we have practiced taking life slower, adopted a somber attitude about the ways of this world, practiced centering ourselves more; we have divested from practices that harm ourselves, our neighbors and our world in favor of creating right relationships characterized by justice and mercy. And on Easter we rejoice after a long and harrowing season living contemplating the darkness of Good Friday.
What we discover as we continue showing up to church after Easter, as we continue to read the Bible past the crucifixion in Luke 23, as we continue to live real lives in this world, as we continue to desire to know the living Christ…is that we are not always good at recognizing Jesus. The word “recognition” has two parts: “re” and “cognition.” This means, basically, re-knowing; knowing something again. This word carries a connotation of relationship, because to re-know something or someone, you have to be familiar in the first place. Cleopas and his friend on the road recognize Jesus because they already knew him; this was not some chance meeting for the first time where you find something in common with your seatmate on an airplane. This was re-meeting Jesus, re-knowing him.
But the events on the road to Emmaus are different. Even though this was a time of meeting-again, the disciples have a hard time recognizing Jesus. He appears to be a stranger to them. We can easily imagine that they truly cannot see the road ahead of them through their blinders of disappointed dreams, not only for themselves but for their whole community of Israel. Maybe they walk this road because they don’t know what to do with themselves and have decided to just go home after the shock and trauma of the events in Jerusalem. As they leave the city, they may be fleeing persecution, maybe trying to put the events in Jerusalem behind them and move on to a new and better life (remember that, unlike us, for them a week has not passed since Easter. Jesus was crucified three days ago…these wounds are incredibly fresh). So no wonder recognizing Jesus was hard as they tried to see past their personal grief and the shadows unadulterated power cast on their world through recent events. They are wondering how their understanding of the words and deeds of Jesus matches up with the trauma of watching their leader be killed. They wonder, “How does this make sense?” and throw up their hands in despair, or perhaps hang their heads in shock. Rev. David Lyle Jeffrey writes of the disciples’ questions that are simultaneously our own questions: “What does it mean to meet the resurrection on the road, as a stranger, when we are between places and perhaps beside ourselves? What are the ethical dimensions of this text, especially the encounter with Jesus as a “stranger in a strange land”? Do we take this “resurrection” — this homeless one — into our homes?”
Rev. Jeffrey also writes that when Jesus says, “You foolish people” in our text today, Jesus is actually saying something closer to “Bless your hearts,” something I’ve learned as a Northerner living in the South is that in the South this phrase carries a complex meaning combining both close relationship and rolling your eyes. And, really, we are not so different from Cleopas and his unnamed companion, traveling the road to Emmaus–or Murfreesboro–or Memphis–or Atlanta. We, too, have questions. Holy Week was difficult for many of us. World events and personal struggles and heartaches tinge our experience of the world in ways that do not always grant us clear vision. So perhaps Jesus lifts up his hands to heaven and mutters, “bless their hearts” towards us in our confusion post-Easter. But we also have it easier than the disciples because we read the text omnisciently with the advantage of time and space. We know that Jesus is the center of this story and we watch as the disciples are traveling on a road that could literally, and does, define their life after the event of the cross. Then they meet Jesus and turn right back around…taking the same road again; re-knowing the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, traveling it again but also for the first time. With Jesus at the center of the narrative, they travel this stretch of ground with different experiences of Christ before and after their encounter. Traveling the road together changes how they know Jesus.
As the two travelers seek answers to their questions, we learn they are really story-seeking. Jesus, who is also re-meeting the disciples, answers their questions, as he often answered questions, by offering a story of his own in return. Rev. Kyndall Rae Rothaus at Lake Shore Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, writes in one sermon, “The men on the road to Emmaus tell Jesus one story: a grief story, a disappointed dream story, a bellyache story, and Jesus takes this story into himself with God-attentive ears . . . and then he tells a different one. That is, they think it is a different story, an old story they’ve heard before about their people, about the ups and downs of God’s deliverance and their denial, the ups and downs of exodus and exile, of prophets and promises, of sinful kings and unexpected heroes. But really Jesus is taking their story and weaving it into the fabric of this one. He is reminding them of just how many times God’s people have been disappointed, and also confused. Lost, wandering, plundered, pensive. He is reminding them how many times God’s people have stumbled right into deliverance, mercy, and help. How many times angels appeared when one was on the brink of death, how many times babies were born to the barren, how many times food fell from heaven upon the famished. It is a long meandering story that approaches a happily-ever after ending, then gets jerked right back towards despair and conflict.”
As Jesus listens to Cleopas and his friend, he does not deny their past experiences or name their grief or trauma for them, but allows space for their lives to interweave with the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. As they walk, treading the same path side by side, some re-cog-nize-ing must be going on for Cleopas and his friend (you know, that feeling when your intuition is going wild but you’re not quite able to put your finger on what’s happening yet?). The travelers invite Jesus to join them for dinner. The stranger is reluctant, but takes his place at the table and picks up the loaf of bread. // Surely we have all had the experiences of deepening relationships of all kinds by sharing intimate stories, communally exploring important and holy texts together, and sharing a meal…but wait, something more is going on here. The stranger lifts the loaf of bread, blesses it and breaks it, and suddenly Cleopas and his friend see clearly! Jesus becomes known to the disciples on the road through voicing the truth about their lives, interpreting Scripture and sharing a meal; together, they create active and resilient community.
Through this story-sharing and history-telling, we join the disciples in seeking to re-know Jesus. So if recognizing Jesus means re-cog-nize-ing, re-knowing, how can we re-cognize Jesus if we don’t “cognize” Jesus first? If we don’t know who he is, if he appears to us as a stranger? As someone we would never invite to have lunch with us, who we’d never allow into our homes and families? How did the disciples, when meeting a stranger on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, still somehow recognize the divine in that person enough to invite them for dinner? How can we, today, re-cognize the divine in someone that society labels “other” if we don’t know “the other” first? As we seek to re-cog-nize Jesus with the disciples, we discover roadblocks that shape how we do or do not recognize Jesus in those people we meet: various social stratifications, different seating arrangements at work in the breakroom or in the school cafeteria…or here in church. We forget that we have something in common with every human being we meet; each of us has the mark of God on our hearts and are made in the image of God.
What do we do with the resurrected Jesus who claims that death is not the end? Who was buried in the ground and sprung up like a seed for another round of life? What do we do with the resurrected Jesus who leads us to recognize, to know and re-know people who are consistently harmed and endangered by the institutions of power in our society?
One thing we know for sure is that if we can view the scriptures and our personal experiences through the lens of the cross and resurrection, searching for the ways the divine makes our hearts burn within us, then we can open ourselves to meeting Jesus on the road, looking like a stranger. Coming here this morning, participating in a community that actively seeks to know the resurrected Jesus through sharing our life stories and reading Scripture and breaking bread, we know and re-know that Easter is not the end of the story of God’s participation in our lives and in the epic of creation. This is just the beginning.
We, who seek to honestly embody the beloved community of God, are the beginning. We, who seek to recognize Jesus in those marginalized by people and structures that hold power in our society, dedicate ourselves to actively seek to know those people as beautiful and good creations of the Loving Creator of All Life. And in this story, we traverse the road through the seasons of the church year looking for road signs that we are traveling the Way of Love in the right directions, each carrying our own stories and experiences, each wondering which Scriptures have the potential to speak to our lives every day, each looking forward to knowing each other through the rituals we celebrate as we remember Jesus, his life and mission. We struggle to make sense of the connections that burn in our hearts. There is more to know, and we are seeking together. May it ever be so.
This sermon originally preached at Glendale Baptist Church, Nashville, TN on 4/23/17.