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.


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.”

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!


A Breakthrough!

This morning, I went out to do some errands: the post office and the grocery store. This is typical Friday fare for me. When I’m not on medical leave, Fridays are my day off, and I usually spend the morning grocery shopping and whatever else is necessary that week. I’ve stayed in the Friday errand practice throughout my time off, just because that’s our family habit.

But today, something was different. I ran into two parishioners while out today, and I was absolutely delighted to talk with them. That is not normal for me. When I am out and about, normally I hate running into people I know. I would sometimes try to avoid eye contact, or even slip into another aisle if I saw someone out of the corner of my eye. I considered going to the grocery store at 6 in the morning, or traveling out of the area, just to avoid seeing people I knew. I used to think that it was a work-home boundary thing…I used to think that I hated seeing people I knew while I was shopping on my day off, because virtually all people I know around here are people I know through my job. In my mind, I can’t be truly “off” I hear somebody call me “pastor” in the cereal aisle.

But I also know that it’s not really about this boundary issue, especially because this feeling has continued into this medical leave. Up until today, I was not particularly pleased to see people I know when I was around town. Even though they were completely friendly. Even though they were genuinely concerned about me, and not looking for anything else. It didn’t matter, because that’s not what it was about…it was really about me feeling like crap, and not wanting to talk to people, to anybody. In fact, this reminds me of the time I gave a hairdresser a really large tip, solely because she was quiet during the haircut. She didn’t engage in small talk or tell me stories or anything…I was so relieved to not have to have any personal interaction with her, that I paid her extra. I don’t think I even told her the reason for the big tip…because that would have been interaction. So it really isn’t about “pastors” and “parishioners”; it’s about me just not wanting to talk with anybody. When I’m depressed, it takes so much energy to talk with somebody. This is why I so often prefer email or texts to phone calls. It doesn’t take nearly as much energy to type to people as it does to talk to them.

But today, I ran into two people, one at the post office and one at the grocery store. First off, I must say that these two people are friendly and kind. These are not the sort of people who are hard to talk to! Only a crazy person would fear them! (See what I did there?) Truly, on any other day, it would have bothered me to have to communicate with them. But today, today, o blessed glorious day, today I was delighted. It’s really the best word I can think of. Both conversations were delightful. I was so happy to talk with them and catch up.

I don’t know why that is. But I think it means I’m getting better. I know it means there’s hope.

Scared of this election

Is it normal to feel frightened, actually scared, by all the campaign signs this election? Is it normal to feel frightened of going to work on election day, because my workplace is a polling place? Because I am scared. I’m scared of talking about whom I’m supporting, unless the other person brings it up first. I’m scared of how angry people are, how self-righteous, how indignant, how completely dismissive of people who are on the opposite side. It feels as though this has gone beyond, “I can’t ever vote for him/her. No matter how bad the other one is, as least it’s not him/her.” It feels like it’s gone to, “I cannot comprehend how a thinking person would ever vote for him/her. If you are planning to vote for him/her, then you are either stupid or evil. And I hate you.”

And that scares me. I’m so scared that this is what we’ve become. I find it very hard to be proud of America right now. Proud of what we once were, yes. Proud of the ideals we were created with, yes. Proud of what we can be one day, yes. But right now? Look at who we’ve become. We all complain about, “Are these the best candidates we could find?” The answer is yes. Yes they are, because we nominated them. We gave them the most votes. You certainly can’t claim that they were nominated by smoke-filled back rooms. (Well, maybe you could argue that on the Democratic side, but never on the GOP. The RNC and the Republican establishment wanted nothing to do with Trump. That was all votes, nothing more.)

We act as though this election is the one moment that will decide the fate of America. (“If he/she is elected, then America as we know it will be destroyed!”) Bullshit. This election will decide a lot of things about the next four years, yes. But our republic is too strong to be destroyed by any one person. Our checks and balances are too strong to allow that. We’ve had some bad presidents in the past. Harding. Buchanan. Jackson, perhaps, depending on whom you talk to. Did they destroy the republic? Of course not. America will survive, whoever takes the oath in January. And sometimes I think that the worst part is that we no longer have respect for the office of president. We no longer have respect for authority and for the will of the people, even when we ourselves disagree with the majority. But this has happened before. Abraham Lincoln was an incredibly unpopular and divisive candidate and president. Hell, seven states left the United States between his election and his inauguration. I find it hard to believe that that will happen in 2017. Yes, we’re having a cultural war, but I can’t believe it would turn into secession.

But I am scared of this cultural war, because I do find myself clearly on one side of it. I know what I believe, and I know what I stand for, and I find it so hard to relate to and communicate with those on the other side. It saddens me that there are such clear sides. It saddens me that there is such mistrust, not only of opinions and ideas, but of facts. I’m scared to show my support for a candidate, because I don’t want to endure the insults and name-calling, the anger and indignation, I’m scared will follow.

I don’t know. Is this normal? Do a lot of people feel this way? Will this feeling end on November 9?