A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was Luke 24:13-35. In last week’s sermon, I invited people to write down their fears on index cards, and get them to me. Many people did, and I incorporated some of them into today’s sermon. 

We have been all over the gospels in the Easter season, but we have seen fear at every turn. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s story of the women on Easter morning, and while they had great joy, they also had fear.

Last week, we heard John’s story of the disciples on Easter evening, who were so scared that they kept the doors locked, and how Jesus came to them and offered them peace.

Today, we hear Luke’s story about two disciples on Easter day. Two sad and frightened disciples, one named Cleopas and one named…well, we don’t know. We know nothing about this second disciple. Man or woman? Old or young? Tall or short? So I’m going to take some artistic license here, and give that second disciple a name: the name you. And I’m going to tell this story again, the story of Cleopas and you walking to Emmaus.

It was a Sunday, and you and Cleopas were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened. It was a journey you walked in sadness, a journey you walked with fear, but a journey you walked together. Perhaps you were trying to escape your problems, put distance between you and Jerusalem. Perhaps you just needed to get some fresh air, clear your thoughts, and talk to someone. You were just so scared.

While you were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with you, but your eyes were kept from recognizing him. He said to you, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

You and Cleopas stood still, looking sad. Then he said, “Are you the only stranger who does not know about the things that frighten us?”

Jesus said, “What things?”

And you said:

  • Poor health
  • Growing old
  • Going blind
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Losing my husband
  • Dying
  • Being alone

And you said:

  • World peace
  • War
  • Climate change
  • My grandkids growing up in a fearful world
  • So many people hate each other
  • Security in our community

And you said:

  • Losing my job
  • Losing my home
  • Losing family
  • Losing things
  • Our family may never be together again

And you said:

  • Darkness
  • Wolves
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Lightning storms
  • Clowns

And you said:

  • Not being good enough
  • Not taking enough risks
  • Disappointing others and myself
  • Not understanding my purpose
  • Letting my anxiety overcome me

And you said:

  • Never knowing God the way I desire
  • Stepping up or standing up for my beliefs
  • God not being real

There were so many things to be frightened of.

Then Jesus said to you, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that is declared in scripture.” And he began to interpret for you all the good news about him in scripture.

He quoted the Psalms and said:

  • The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

And he quoted Isaiah and said:

  • Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

And he quoted Ezekiel and said:

  • And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

And he quoted Paul and said:

  • For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And he quoted the angels and said:

  • Do not be afraid.

And he quoted himself and said:

  • I am with you always, to the end of the age.

His words made you feel a little better. But they also added a little guilt. Why did you have so much trouble believing them? Why were you still afraid? What was wrong with you?

And then the three of you came near to the village to which you were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But you and Cleopas urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us.” And he did. When he was at the table with you, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to you.

Then your eyes were opened.

You recognized him.

And he vanished from your sight.

And in that moment, it all changed. You and Cleopas now saw that your hearts were warmed, burning even. Things began to make sense. The fear you felt began to wash away. Because Jesus was there. He was alive, and he had been right in front of you. You found that you were confident, you were courageous, you were excited, you were alive. You and Cleopas were no longer walking sadly. The two of you were running excitedly all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Your fears were still there, but they didn’t hurt as much. The burning in your heart shrank those fears, moved them off to the side, gave you hope and life. Because the risen Christ was there. Just as the risen Christ appeared to Mary, and to Simon Peter, and to Thomas, and to Cleopas, he appeared to you.

Last week I asked you to share with me your fears, and I am honored that you did. They are your fears, and they are real. I know that I can’t stand up here and say, “Don’t be afraid,” and expect you to just say, “Oh thanks, Pastor, I feel much better now.” It doesn’t usually work like that. What I can do is tell you this: the risen Christ says, “Don’t be afraid.” And whatever journey you are on right now, he is walking with you. You may not be able to recognize him right now, and that’s okay. You may know in your head that he’s there, but you just can’t feel it, and that’s okay. That’s the way it often is. But he is there. And sometime, someday, at some point along your journey, your eyes will be opened. You will recognize him. On that day, your heart will burn. On that day, your fears will be burned away. That day is coming. Christ is risen, and he has promised it.

But for now, let us keep walking together. And keep discussing with one another all the things that we are scared of. Together, we will get through each day, reminding one another to trust. Reminding one another that Christ is risen. Reminding one another that he is coming.


Jesus is Alive…

…and being held in a secure undisclosed government facility.

Welcome to Pinewood Men’s first Audio production.

To those of you who come to this blog looking for something spiritually uplifting or edifying…this might not be the post for you. Might I recommend another?


Jesus is Alive! from Pete Barry on Vimeo.

Labyrinth #8: Green Pond United Methodist Church, Easton, PA

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society.

Today’s labyrinth is at a Methodist church in Easton. It was built as an Eagle scout project, and it’s a rather simple four-circuit classical labyrinth. The labyrinth is constructed on a base of small stones, and the walls are lines of roughly fist-sized rocks. At the center is a large rock with a few smaller stones on and around it.

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The labyrinth is not very large, and the journey within the labyrinth itself doesn’t take very long, but that is made up for by the journey there.

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There is a very nice and long path that leads from the middle of a field to the labyrinth itself. This path was made as an Eagle scout project by a different scout. I have this idea that every so often, another scout will add something onto this project, and that one day the church building will be surrounded by labyrinth add-ons. Might be fun.

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After you walk the path, there is a lovely little wooden bridge that leads to the labyrinth itself. When I reached the labyrinth, I had to do a little spring cleanup to get some sticks off the path. It reminds me of when I used to letterbox out in the woods: we all work together to keep the labyrinths in good shape.

So I entered the labyrinth with a different sort of question on my mind: “Is there a project I should be working on right now?” I have some ideas of projects I could be working on, including an idea for a book. Since my medical leave ended, I haven’t felt like I have a particular direction — I’m just kind of going day by day. I was looking in this labyrinth for some guidance about whether it’s time to focus on a particular project.

Like I said, the labyrinth was a short walk, so by the time I reached the center, I had barely gotten into a meditative state of mind. So I started walking around the rock in the center, and then closed my eyes and looked toward the sun, so I could see the bright patterns inside my eyelids. At some point, I opened my eyes, and realized that I had completely zoned out; I guess I had really hit that meditative state. And I felt with some confidence that now is not the time to work on a new project — just keep doing what I’m doing for now. And that’s okay. This blog, my job, and my family are enough. Plus my marathon of Classic Doctor Who, of course. I’m on Season Nine, if anybody is interested.


Peace Amid Fear

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the Second Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 20:19-31.

I feel like I should be somewhere else today. And what’s pretty strange is that the place I feel I should be is St. Luke Lutheran Church, a little congregation in Archbald, which is near Scranton.

You see, every nine years, I preach at St. Luke. And I’m due this year. Nine years ago, when I was serving a church in Nescopeck, I was at St. Luke on the Second Sunday of Easter, as a pulpit exchange. And nine years before that, I preached there as a seminary student. It’s a strange little tradition, but it just feels like it’s time for me to go back to that little church. I’m not going to, though. But if I did, I know what I’d preach about. Every time I’ve preached there, I’ve talked about fear.

The first time I was there, in 1999, I said these words: The Y2K bug will not mean the end of the planet Earth. The mountains will not crumble; the ocean levels will not rise. But it just might mean the end of our society as we know it. Remember the Y2K bug? That problem with computers in the 90s that was supposed to cause a worldwide crash on New Years Day? I honestly preached, “it might mean the end of our society as we know it.” Silly as it seems now, many of us were honestly scared of that then.

The second time I preached there, in 2008, I said very similar words: This recession will not mean the end of the planet Earth. The mountains will not crumble; the ocean levels will not rise. But it just might mean the end of our society as we know it. Now, I will grant you, the recession of 2008 did have much more lasting effects that Y2K. But the end of our society? Hardly. But many of us were honestly scared of that then.

There was always something to be afraid of. And now, in 2017, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding something frightening to mention in a sermon at St. Luke.

But let’s look at today’s gospel. This story is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” But I think of it more as “Frightened Disciples.” Let’s look.

It was Easter evening. Mary Magdalene had just seen the risen Lord, and she told the disciples about it. And yet the same evening, they were scared, scared enough to keep the doors locked. They probably didn’t believe Mary. But despite the locks, Jesus came right to them. He came right into their midst, right into their fear, and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced – into their fear, he brought great joy.

But Thomas wasn’t there. So later on, the others told him about it. And just like the disciples didn’t believe Mary, Thomas didn’t believe them. But then a week later, the disciples were in the room again, behind locked doors again. Just a week after the disciples saw Jesus, they locked the doors for fear again.

So what did Jesus do? Did he say, “Oh, hello Thomas. Peace be with you,” and then turn to the other disciples and say, “What is wrong with the rest of you? I was just here last week! What part of ‘Christ is risen’ don’t you understand? What part of ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ don’t you understand?”

No. He didn’t do that. He simply came to them, again, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Just like the week before. Jesus had compassion for his frightened disciples. And it makes me wonder if this is what happened next:

A week later, they were again gathered in the room, and the doors were locked again, because they were scared, again. And Jesus came and stood before them and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced. And then a week after that, they were gathered in the room, and the doors were locked again, because they were scared, again. And Jesus came and stood before them and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced. And so on. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday. I wonder if they were scared every week, perhaps scared of the same thing, or perhaps of something new. Because it seems like people are always scared of something.

And then eventually they became us, in places like Archbald and Johnsonville. We keep gathering each week. And we keep locking the doors, because we are still scared. Now, we don’t literally lock the church doors as we worship, but perhaps even here we lock the doors of our hearts. Perhaps we gather here, and pretend we are not scared. We do not admit our fears. We do not talk about them. We put on a brave face so that the people around us don’t know how much of a mess we are inside.

Yet Jesus still comes. Not in person anymore. But he still comes in words of scripture. In moments of preaching. In bread and wine. In the waters of baptism. He still comes. And he still says to us, “Peace be with you.” And we still rejoice when we experience his presence.

I believe that many of us, probably most of us, perhaps all of us, are scared of something right now. It’s hard to talk about this, because often we don’t even want to admit we feel this way. So I won’t ask you to say your fears aloud, at least not today. But I do ask you to think about them. Brings those fears to mind. And I invite you to write them down. There are index cards on your pews. Write your fears there, right now. And then put them in the offering plate, or hand them to me after worship. And then I will talk about them next Sunday during the sermon. I am also toying with a way to publish them, without names. I think that it’s only by being honest about our fears that we can truly hear Jesus’ promise of peace.

So I invite you now to take a minute and write one or more fears on your index card.

[For those reading this sermon as a blog post, feel free to email me with your fears at pastorMJS@gmail.com.]

Thank you. I will have more to say about this next week. But for now, hear the words of Christ, as he comes into our midst, as he comes into our lives, as he comes into our fears: “Peace be with you.”

Snapshots of My Depression #11: Not the Best Man

This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.

It’s been a while since I posted one of these “Snapshots.” I thought maybe it was time to dust off this series, and keep it going. This post is the story of how I got into regular therapy with my first long-term counselor. I’ve already written about how my depression got to the point of suicide, and I’ve already written about the amazing experience I had at First Hospital Wyoming Valley in the aftermath of that attempt. But that wasn’t when I started seeing a counselor regularly. Sure, I did see somebody for a month or two after my hospital stay, but it was actually about ten years later that I finally saw the need for ongoing therapy.

It started with a wedding, a wedding that was making me upset.

But it actually started at a different wedding, about a year earlier, a beautiful wedding on the Jersey shore. A college friend of mine was married that day, and so a lot of Muhlenberg grads were there. Among them were me, my wife Heather, and Pete and Jean, who were engaged to be married the following year. Pete was (and is) one of my closest friends, and Jean was (and is) one of Heather’s closest friends. All four of us met at Muhlenberg, and it was a remarkable and wonderful coincidence that we ended up in two couples like this. Being at this beach wedding just a few months before their own wedding, Pete and Jean certainly had their own nuptials in mind. Unfortunately, I had their wedding in mind as well. Particularly the makeup of their wedding party.

Ah, yes. The wedding party. My wife Heather was to be matron of honor. And I…was to be just an ordinary groomsman. Because another college friend, Eric, was to be the best man. Not me. Eric would walk down the aisle with Heather, not me. Eric would be next to Pete in the photos, not me. And it’s because it was Eric that I was upset. If it had been anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. Here’s the thing – Eric, Pete, and I were inseparable in college. We called ourselves the “triumvirate.” We argued and fought, but we were brothers. We were equals. There was something holy about the three of us, something special beyond any combination of two of us, a trust that couldn’t be broken. But now it felt to me that Pete had broken that trust. It didn’t matter to me what role Eric and I had in Pete’s wedding, so long as they were equivalent. But they weren’t. To me, best man was a higher level of honor than groomsman. And I was pissed.

I tried to be calm about it. It didn’t matter, right? It was just one of those things, right? I kept telling myself that in truth, Eric would be far better at all the best-man functions than I (which is true). I kept telling myself that this isn’t a statement about our relative worth. I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t feel this way. I tried to pretend I didn’t. I tried to play it off as a joke for a while. But as time went on, the jokes got less and less funny, and more and more awkward. By the day of the wedding on the shore, my passive-aggressive behavior had been going on for a few months. And the last straw happened that day. During the reception, with perhaps too much alcohol running through my veins, I said something that went way too far.

And Pete called me out on it. He took me outside, and told me I had to stop this. He told me how upset he was. He told me that he needed me to figure out how to get over this. I cried. I apologized. I told him that I didn’t know why I was so upset about this. I didn’t know why I was so angry. And I promised him that I would get some help.

And within a week, I called Council for Relationships, a counseling center in the Delaware Valley. My counseling relationship with Lucy began with trying to work out what my anger was all about. She helped me with that, and we kept meeting for about five years. Thanks to her, I was able to unearth all kinds of things from my past, and start the process of working through them.

I’m so grateful to Pete for forgiving me for my behavior, and also for having the courage and the compassion to call me out on this. That was the catalyst that started me on a journey of lifelong healing.

Thirty Minutes

Waiting and watching
I am watching myself twist and gyre
I am waiting for the calm to come
A headache cries for a cure
My brain is pulsing and throbbing
Pop the two orange pills and wait…
In thirty minutes the peace arrives as the blood vessels release
Or whatever. Biology’s not my field.

But this today is no headache
A mind-ache perhaps or a soul-ache
The constriction different,
But no less real.
The cure less pharmaceutical,
But no less real.
An hour of yoga
A quarter of meditation
Or perhaps a few dozen lines of verse
Are healing.

Or so I want to believe

There are thoughts that subside into oceans of emotion
And feelings that glom into dread
There are monsters awake in the doldrums and neurons
I’m never alone in my head

I am nobody’s keeper —
— I am not responsible for their feelings
Yet I am the keeper of the monsters —
— I can tell them to sit down, be still
And I shall

There are two sorts of communities in my life:
The people without and the people within.
I am the keeper of the inside people
The monsters on the catwalk
The voices in the dark
They scold me
They call me
They think they make me
They don’t. I shall speak. And they shall listen.

But the outside people:
Their feelings are their own,
Their worries and fears
I will not take that blame
I will not own their pain
I am not their keeper
I will allow them their truth their meaning their hurt their joy their opinion their brilliance their stupidity
It’s not mine

And I will try, try to love them
Within and without

Has it been thirty minutes so soon?

Breathe the Resurrection (Vigil of Easter)

I preached four times this weekend, during the “Great Three Days” worship service that lasts from Thursday evening through Sunday morning. In current Evangelical Lutheran liturgical understanding, this is one long service that begins with Maundy Thursday and ends with the Vigil of Easter.

Click here for Maundy Thursday.
Click here for Good Friday.
Click here for Holy Saturday (Healing Service).

This is my Great Vigil of Easter Sermon.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

One more time. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathing is a good thing. I encourage you to continue to breathe throughout this sermon.

Do not be afraid! The angel said to the women. Do not be afraid! But they were. Who wouldn’t be afraid? Their friend, their leader, their messiah, had died. They went to the tomb to do their loyal duty.

Who wouldn’t be afraid? Their whole world had changed. The future they envisioned was wiped away.

And then the earthquake. The angel. The guards shaking as though dead.

The angel tells them good news. He is not here! He has been raised! He’s on his way to Galilee! And they are still afraid. They left the tomb with fear and great joy.

And who wouldn’t be afraid? The unknown is one of the greatest sources of fear. And so much was unknown. Perhaps they had doubts about the angel’s trustworthiness. Or perhaps they knew that even with Christ raised, this was still an uncertain future. What did it mean that Jesus was alive? What did it mean for today? For tomorrow? For everything? Who wouldn’t be afraid?

Remember to breathe. Don’t forget to breathe out. Don’t hold your breath in for too long.

When we are afraid, what do we do? We cling to things. We hold on tightly to what we have. Fear leads us to believe that there is not enough, not enough money, not enough time, not enough anything. It’s human nature to do this. And we even do the same with our breath. When we are afraid, we gasp. We hold our breath, almost as though we’re scared there isn’t enough air. But there is. Breathe.

The women were afraid, but that’s not all they were. They left the tomb with fear and great joy. Two emotions that seem surprising together. But perhaps that’s what the resurrection does. The resurrection gives life, and life is unpredictable. Unexpected. Full of surprises. So of course there is fear. But Christ is alive. And whatever surprises life has, he will be there. And neither death nor suffering have the final word anymore. So there is room there for great joy as well.

Perhaps that’s what the resurrection does. Perhaps it takes fear, and transmutes it into great joy.

The good news of the resurrection is that Christ is alive. And that means we are alive. We are full of life. Through our baptism, we are connected to Christ. Christ now lives within us, in the hidden places just beyond our thoughts, just beyond our feelings. Christ is there.

And I wonder if, deep inside, he does something kind of like what our lungs do. When we breathe in air, our lungs perform an amazing exchange, taking in the oxygen we need, and expelling the carbon dioxide we don’t. Every breath, this takes place. Over and over again. Twenty-four hours a day.

I wonder if perhaps Christ also performs an exchange. Perhaps Christ is always working to change our fear into great joy. The fear is never completely gone. Just like our bodies are constantly making carbon dioxide that must be expelled, our human nature is always building up fear. But Christ works to change that into joy. Every moment of every day, as we breathe in, and breathe out, Christ is allowing us to let go of our fear, and to receive the hope, the grace, the life, that leads to great joy.

Are you still breathing? Breathe in. Breathe in the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Breathe in the good news through your ears, as you hear the words of scripture, the words of preaching, the lyrics and tunes of the hymns. Breathe in the good news through your mouth, as you taste the presence of Christ through his body and blood. Breathe in the good news through your nose, as you smell the flowers of spring, the new life returning to the world after a long winter. Breathe in the good news through your eyes, as you see the smiles and the hope of children, the new life in their eyes. Breathe in, and feel the good news filling your lungs, filling your veins, filling your heart. Feel Christ transform all your fear into great joy.

And breathe out. Don’t hold this breath. Don’t hold it in. Just like air, we have to let this breath out, in order that we can receive more. Breathe out this good news. Breathe out by sharing the good news with others. Breathe out by treating one another with love. Breathe out by welcoming the stranger. Breathe out by sharing generously. Breathe out by speaking out for justice. Breathe out by smiling. Breathe out by letting go of the fear, letting go of the worry, letting go of the need for control. Breathe out by trusting. Trusting that God has got it.

And then breathe in again. And then breathe out again.

Because Christ is risen. Come, see the place where he lay. (Breathe in.)

Then, go and tell his disciples that he is risen. (Breathe out.)

Let’s breathe again.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!