Sermon on Luke 24:13-25
Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
April 11, 2021
Having heard these ancient stories, let’s turn now to a contemporary story from our still-speaking God. I’ve adapted this story by the Rev. Liddy Barlow just a smidge:
Three-year-old Lydia doesn’t remember much about life before the pandemic. She doesn’t remember passing the peace during worship, or crowding together on the chancel steps for the children’s sermon. She doesn’t remember ever getting a hug or a handshake from anyone outside her immediate family.
She does remember that in the fall, her family’s beloved dog Hobbes died. She watched her parents dig a grave to bury him in their rural backyard.
Lydia understands that there’s a sickness that’s spread all over the world. She knows the sickness means she has to wash her hands and wear a mask. Every night, she prays with her family: “God, please help the world get better.”
One recent night at bedtime, after repeating their prayer, Lydia asked, “When the world is better, will we keep wearing masks?”
“No, when the world is better we can take our masks off,” her mom replied.
“And when the world is better,” Lydia asked again, “will Daddy un-dig Hobbes?”
This spring, [we are] making the slow transition into a post-pandemic reality. It might seem that the world has recovered, has gotten better. In some ways, things are just as we left them: [sanctuaries that appear unchanged when we return after more than a year away, congregations ready to return to their regular routines.]. But we are discovering that not everything is the same. We’ve adopted new habits that will take a while to break, and found new rhythms that we may no longer want to disrupt. Some of our relationships have not survived a long absence. Some of us are coping with the dimensions of a new chronic illness, “long covid,” or wrestling with new trauma and anxiety. And [almost 5,000 of our neighbors in Kansas] have died. There are missing faces in our communities, empty pews in our sanctuaries, fresh graves in our cemeteries. The world is getting better, but not everything can be un-dug.
“Not everything can be un-dug.” As we step into Eastertide, that statement: “Not everything can be un-dug,” is sticking with me. Each year when the Easter story grabs hold of us once again, we find we are not the same people we were the last time we heard it. Easter 2021 finds us differently than Easter 2020 and Easter 2019. We don’t yet know who we will be when Easter 2022 rolls around.
Depending on what is happening in the world and in our own lives, the story may feel particularly resonant on any given year…..or it might leave us cold, wishing we could tap into the joy but unable to really grasp it firmly. Some years there are parts of us that just can’t be un-dug. And other years we joyfully throw off the dirt, leap out of our graves, and dance in the warm Spring sun.
No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey….or how the Easter story finds us this year, we are all welcome here. And the Easter Story, pursues us once again…”ready or not, here it comes!” In fact, we don’t have just ONE Easter Story, we have several. The whole thing is so incredible, we seem to need many different versions just to wrap our heads around it. Not only do we have the different versions in each gospel, of course, but we have different Easter Stories even within a single gospel. The author of Luke isn’t satisfied with just ONE story of the risen Christ, so he keeps spinning stories of how different people were affected by the Resurrected Christ.
The women, of course, but then, also, Peter gets into the game. And after Peter, we immediately get this story about two from the inner circle that we’ve not heard of before - Cleopas and his unnamed friend. The stories are just flowing so quickly that it’s still the same DAY. Cleopas and his friend seem to have waited for something to happen because they believed Jesus at least a little bit when he said he would be raised from death on the third day. The third day has now come and almost gone and….nothing. At least to their knowledge. So they depart for Emmaus, which we are told is about a seven mile journey.
As they walk, Cleopas and his friend are joined by Jesus - only they don’t know it’s JESUS. The three travelers make small talk as they are walking alone and these disciples share with the stranger their overwhelming sadness. Their friend, Jesus, has been killed. And they had HOPED he would be the one to bring about liberation for Israel - to remove Rome’s boot from their necks. But now the third day has come and gone and Jesus is really dead and gone and they’ve lost hope.
They continue to walk and talk and as they near Emmaus, the stranger (who we know is Jesus) begins to spin stories from scripture, beginning with Moses and the prophets.
Once they arrive in Jerusalem, the disciples extend hospitality to this stranger, insisting that he stay with them for the night. He accepts the invitation and when they sit down to eat, there’s something about the way he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, shares it with them…...in this act that looks a lot like what we now call Holy Communion, it suddenly becomes clear to Cleopas and his friend that the Risen Christ has been with them this whole time.
And as soon as they make this connection, he’s gone. He vanishes from before their eyes. And they find themselves so caught up in the Easter story, that they immediately set off for Jerusalem to tell their friends. That’s right, even though they’ve already made the seven-mile journey once today, they are prepared to make it again, after dark. That’s how good the story is and how urgently they need to share it with the others.
The author of Luke spins this particular Easter story with such beauty and care. It’s the type of story we can come back to again and again, and every time it seems a different part of it reaches out to us. As I sat with the story this past week, I was struck by how these disciples didn’t recognize their friend immediately when he appeared to them on the road. Isn’t that strange? I mean, maybe it’s just told that way because it makes for a good story. Or was there something cosmic about this Risen Christ that made him difficult to recognize?
Or perhaps Jesus’s friends were simply traumatized, their sight disrupted by the enormity of what they’d just been through. Perhaps they were unable to see clearly, make sense of basic everyday interactions because they were simply unable to function.
When our bodies and spirits are in a state of alarm, or extreme exhaustion or overwhelm, even basic tasks can become impossible. Lots of people all over the world are experiencing something similar these days. As we struggle through year two of a global pandemic and as we continue to confront the evils of hate, violence, white supremacy and misogyny...we can find ourselves overwhelmed. The fatigue catches up with us and we sometimes can’t remember a word, or complete simple tasks. Our brains just aren’t making connections like they’re supposed to. We feel scattered, disconnected, and sometimes downright dysfunctional.
This story of Emmaus reminds me of some excellent advice I received from a lactation consultant when I had a newborn baby. She told us that newborns sometimes get so overwhelmed with the world around them that their nervous systems can kind of short-circuit. When they are overly hungry or tired they might not be able to latch on and nurse properly. Their tiny selves become scattered, disconnected, dysfunctional and they need help getting organized before they can eat. So she showed us some things we could do to help the baby “get organized” - help them calm their nervous systems down so they could function and be fed.
I feel like that’s what Jesus is doing in this story. Helping his beloved friends get organized so they’ll be able to function and fed. They are so overwhelmed by the enormity of what they’ve been through, even their vision is disrupted. They can’t see clearly. But there’s something about the familiarity of the shared stories, and the walking along together, and the breaking of the bread that organizes their spirits, calms their systems, pulls them back together.
And once they are re-organized in this way, they are able to see. And once they see Easter standing right in front of them, they are off and running to Jerusalem to share the gift of this good story with the others. Once they are re-organized they are ready for the next big shift, ready for what is coming next in their lives.
Are we ready for the next big shift? Are we ready for what is coming next? Are we ready to be un-dug and dance in the warm Spring sun?
We know our lives aren’t going back to how they were in The Before Times, but it can feel hard to anticipate what things will look like in six months or a year. It often feels to me like we are all just so ready for “the end of the pandemic” that we are tempted to rush forward into whatever is coming next without pausing to get organized. I keep pausing to remind myself of the questions I was focused on at this time last year: What is essential? What matters most? How do I keep waking up each day and choosing to love God and love my neighbor as myself? What does it look like to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God in this rapidly changing landscape?
In our excitement about vaccines and spring and “getting back out there,” we need to also pause and take care.
We need to care for the enormity of what we’ve been through together and what we’re still going through. We need to grieve that some of the things we’ve lost really can’t be un-dug. That’s real. And in the realness of that hurt and sorrow, the Easter stories find us once again. Our God is relentlessly offers to us - no, offers is not quite strong enough - CHASES US DOWN with these stories of hope.
And so, beloveds, as we settle into this season of Easter, may we do so with the hope of getting organized - just like little babies do. Not in a color-coded spreadsheet kind of way, but in a deep-in-the-bones way. Clear eyes, open hearts, receptive spirits ready to receive the gifts our Easter God is ready to bestow upon us next.
We meet this God as we travel, as we share these ancient stories, as we gather around tables together and remember Jesus. We are held in the arms of Love, knit back together when we feel scattered, disconnected, unable to function.. We are re-membered, re-organized, renewed for the next season of life.
Thanks be to our Easter God.