Thursday, April 27, 2017
James Kenneth Echols Prize for Excellence in Preaching Event
Augustana Chapel, Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago
My friend Anna and I were finalists for our seminary’s annual preaching prize, and we both got to preach our sermons, based on the road to Emmaus story, in chapel last Thursday. Here is mine, and here is Anna’s.
Manuscript follows below.
Luke 24:13-35 (The Walk to Emmaus)
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
It was getting late as the men walked down the road. They trudged slowly, their shoulders bowed under a heavy burden of disappointment: things had not turned out as they had planned. They were members of a minority group, living under an oppressive empire, but they had hoped that things might be different. The wind howled and they pulled their coats closer, realizing that they were not dressed warmly enough for the cold. And so they kept walking, feet aching, looking for a place where they could find food and shelter. And then an astonishing thing happened. Out of nowhere, a team of immigration agents descended upon them. They shouted and slammed the men into the walls of a 7-Eleven, and then they threw them into vans and drove them away.
Obviously, these men weren’t walking to Emmaus. They were undocumented immigrants searching for shelter from the cold who were picked up outside a church in Alexandria, VA. And what happened to them seems very, very far from our gospel story for today.
I have long loved this story of the road to Emmaus. I love the dramatic tension of knowing – as the reader – that even as these two disciples walk along, lost in sadness and disappointment, that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead, and is walking with them! But I love most of all the moment where Jesus breaks the bread and their eyes are opened to see the risen Christ face to face. In an instant, their sorrow is transformed into jubilant action, and they tear back down the road to Jerusalem at breakneck speed. They thought they knew so well how the story had ended, how it always ended when anyone dared to challenge the mighty Roman Empire, but God interrupted that narrative of death with resurrection and life.
But, this Easter day, I think about these men arrested and driven away in Virginia, and about the devastated faces of countless family members I’ve seen at the detention center in Broadview. There was no such sudden, divine interruption in their tragic stories. And it leaves me asking the question: where is the resurrection? Where is Christ in all this?
I know the “right” answer to this question. Believe me, three years of theological education have not been wasted on me. I know that Christ is always with us, in our hearts and in our neighbors. I know that God accompanies us even in the darkest and most hopeless of times. I know that God is in the detention center and in the bus with the blacked out windows and in the homes of frightened children who want to know why Papi got taken away and can’t come back.
But as encouraging as it is to know that God is with us in our struggles, sometimes this answer just doesn’t seem like enough. And I hear that in this story, too. Jesus reminded these two disciples that they already knew about God’s history of relationship with Israel through the prophets, but they were still bowed down with sadness. We can hear their grief through the words of Cleopas: “But we had hoped… that he that he was the one to redeem Israel.” I feel the terrible weight of those words. It presses down with an inescapable gravity. Like these two disciples, we each carry with us the burden of disappointed hopes. And that can make it seem insufficient, even facile, to say that God is with us, when it feels like that doesn’t change anything.
I think about refugee families clinging to rafts in the middle of the Mediterranean, or the faces of children peering through gates slammed shut in their faces, and about how they had hoped to escape the violence that destroyed their homes.
I think about my own life, about my mom and my family, and how we had hoped that she would win her battle with cancer, how so many millions of families have hoped for an end to cancer.
And of course, I think about the people I have seen at the detention center: those who stand waiting and weeping on the steps outside, and those who sit inside the darkened buses, chained hand and foot, and about how they had hoped to be reunited with their families and to find a better life.
And in the midst of all these bitterly disappointed hopes, I wonder: Where is the resurrection? Where is Christ?
I confess that I am a little envious of Cleopas and his friend. They experienced this same kind of bitter disappointment; they carried that terrible weight of “but we had hoped” as they mourned the loss of their friend and teacher Jesus. But then they got to see Jesus. They got to see him physically walking down the road with them and breaking bread with them. They got to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had undone their disappointment, that God had defeated death itself. Sometimes it seems to me like life would be so much easier if I could just see Jesus, the actual, physical, risen Jesus, to see and touch and talk with resurrection itself. If I could just see for myself that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead and changed everything, surely life would be so much better.
But then I think again about Cleopas and his friend. I imagine them running to find the other disciples, and the giddy confusion of voices as they told themselves and each other again and again, “The Lord is risen! He has appeared to Simon! The Lord is risen! We saw him in the breaking of the bread!” Even as I imagine this, I realize that, in a way, nothing had materially changed for them. In fact, things arguably got worse. Jesus had risen from the dead, but they still lived under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire. And as the Christian movement grew larger and noisier, emboldened by the news of Jesus’ resurrection, it gained the empire’s attention and its ire. All of these leaders in the movement were, without a doubt, murdered in a variety of horrifying ways. And it’s likely that they also had to watch their friends and coworkers likewise tortured and murdered. Their lives were certainly no more free of pain and death than ours are now.
But they never seemed to waiver in their faith. Even after Christ ascended into heaven and was no longer physically with them, they never seemed to ask “Where is the resurrection?” or “Where is Christ?” Even in the face of torture and persecution and death, they never abandoned their faith that Christ had triumphed forever over the evil and sin that plague this world. They went to their deaths utterly confident that death itself had been defeated.
And even as I interrogate this text with all my desperation and anger about the terrible injustice of things, I realize that I feel my heart burning within me. Because I recognize that faith. It’s the faith that got me through the death of my mother, the faith that has enabled me to keep going back to the detention center instead of throwing my hands up in despair. In fact, this very faith is the one thing that enables me to ask again and again “Where is the resurrection?” and “Where is Christ?” I could not ask these questions without faith, if I were truly afraid they had no answer. The questions themselves reveal that, in my heart of hearts, I have faith that Christ is risen and that God continues to work resurrection in our world, even when I can’t see it.
As it turns out, I don’t actually need to see Jesus to have faith. And if I’m being honest, it is my faith that allows me to see Jesus. My faith reassures me of God’s presence, even when my eyes are blind to it. With Jesus, believing is seeing, rather than the other way around. Cleopas and his companion longed to see Jesus, but they had lost their faith when they saw him crucified. So when they actually saw Jesus, the actual physical Jesus, walking down the road with them, they didn’t really see him. They could have just as easily let him keep walking down the road and never have known that it was him. It was only when Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, that their eyes were opened. But it wasn’t their physical eyes – they were already open. It was the eyes of their faith that opened to see the risen Christ.
Faith enables us to see in a way that our eyes can’t. It allows us to read our lives like we read the story of the road to Emmaus, with that same dramatic tension – knowing that this narrative of death is not all there is. Faith enables us to look at the world, as broken and as heartbreaking as it is, and to see hope. When Cleopas and his companion and the other disciples looked at the world, even after Christ’s resurrection, surely they saw a world full of slavery and violence, a world which persecuted difference in the most brutal ways imaginable. But faith allowed them to look beyond the grief and the torture, beyond the detention center and the destroyed lives, beyond the cross — to see hope and resurrection and life
This is the faith that we share. It is the faith that enables us to see Christ and to see resurrection, even in the midst of death and disappointed hopes. It is faith that enables us to rail against God with all our fury and all our anguish, to ask the difficult questions, because we know that God will have an answer. And it’s the faith that enables us to endure the hard times, and to trust in God’s presence even when God seems most absent.
This faith is why we gather here together every week. We come thirsting, hungering for reminders of this faith. We come to the table, burdened and weary, and Christ meets us there – indeed, he has been walking with us this whole time. And again and again, every time the bread is blessed and broken, God renews the joy of resurrection in our hearts, opening the eyes of our faith, and allowing us to see the risen Christ face to face.