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(Sermon from 2014-05-04 at Zion Lutheran Church, Boalsburg, PA)

 

Grace to you and peace from God our father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

It seems apropos that I was asked to preach today. Not because of something inherent about me, but because of the reason I was asked. In case you slipped in late and weren’t already aware, Pastor Book, along with a sizable contingent from our congregation, are in Washington DC, participating in the Race for Hope, a charity walk and run for brain cancer as Team Zion, honoring the memory of our own Todd Miller who died of brain cancer by helping raise money to find a cure.

As today’s lesson begins, Jesus is risen, but at least in Luke’s account, hasn’t yet made a personal appearance to his disciples. Instead, the community of disciples and close followers is trying to understand the meaning of empty tombs, of prophecies, of angels. In fact, it’s important to hear the first part of the chapter to understand what is happening in the second, today’s gospel.

24:1 Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. 24:2 They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, 24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. 24:5 The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 24:6 He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 24:7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 24:8 Then the women remembered his words, 24:9 and when they returned from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 24:11 But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them. 24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent down and saw only the strips of linen cloth; then he went home, wondering what had happened. (NET)

Here we pick up today’s gospel:

24:13 Now that very day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 24:14 They were talking to each other about all the things that had happened. 24:15 While they were talking and debating these things, Jesus himself approached[.]

These men didn’t know whether to be in mourning or to dance. Mary said an angel had told her Jesus was risen, but all they could verify was that the tomb was empty. Having likely come to Jerusalem for the Passover and stayed over the Sabbath, these two disciples were now heading back to their hometowns.

[He] began to accompany them 24:16 (but their eyes were kept from recognizing him). 24:17 Then he said to them, “What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” And they stood still, looking sad. 24:18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” 24:19 He said to them, “What things?” “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied, “a man who, with his powerful deeds and words, proved to be a prophet before God and all the people; 24:20 and how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. Not only this, but it is now the third day since these things happened. 24:22 Furthermore, some women of our group amazed us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 24:23 and when they did not find his body, they came back and said they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24:24 Then 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.

When a people mourns a loss which is sense-less in the most literal sense of the word, we seek to find some purpose in it or at least decipher its meaning. This is true at the scale of family or friends (as here), congregation (like Zion, at the loss of Todd Miller, whom I regretfully was never able to meet but certainly have gotten to know through the witness of Zion), or even a nation or world (9/11, wars), we want to make sense from the senseless. Jesus (whom they only knew as a fellow Jewish traveler, probably also a pilgrim) must have astounded them with his response:

24:25 So he said to them, “You foolish people—how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 24:26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Now Jesus sounds like the Jesus that the writer of Mark portrayed, the Jesus who often responded to his disciple’s efforts at interpreting current events by saying (in the translation of Greek scholar James Boyce) “You Dundering Dodoheads!” But he followed up how? By continuing to walk with them and interpreting for them.

One of the most powerful songs I have encountered is written by a Christian musician named Ray Boltz. It tells the story of a father walking toward Jerusalem with his two sons to make sacrifice. As they’re walking toward the city, his boys want to know what they will see- so he “tells them of Moses and father Abraham” and then tells them to “watch the lamb” they were to sacrifice, to “make sure it doesn’t run away”. It becomes apparent when they reach the city that something is wrong- and they quickly discover that there is an uproar because the Romans are going to crucify three men, one of them Jesus. Having (unwittingly and unwillingly) witnessed the barbarism and having stood transfixed afterward, lost and decentered, the father feels the tiny hands of his sons holding on to him. Brought back into a sense of time and reality, he hears his sons say “Father please forgive us- the lamb ran away.” The pathos of that moment, the fact that I have not been able to sing that song for 8 years now (ever since I had children of my own), must have been what Jesus walked into here. And it is what the unsuspecting companion of the tragically departed inevitably stumbles upon.

How can we respond in that situation? One way is to do what Jesus does (not the name calling, which was probably more for posterity’s benefit than for those disciples):

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.

The father in our song continues the same way- by returning to the past, and to God’s promises and most of all His provision. “So I told them of Moses and father Abraham, and then I said dear children, watch the lamb.” You see, in the face of an overwhelming present and an uncertain future, there is nowhere to turn but back to what is certain- the history of God’s work and his promises. Think about what you heard in the second lesson today- God helps us through as we continue on the journey. But it was not accidental that the disciples on the road here did not understand. God had “kept their eyes from recognizing” Jesus, for now. Because it often takes wrestling with the unreasonable, the unbelievable, the tragic, to be able to hear the good news for what it is. It takes understanding our brokenness, our sin, to recognize our need for forgiveness. It took death to achieve resurrection.

24:28 So they approached the village where they were going. He acted as though he wanted to go farther, 24:29 but they urged him, “Stay with us, because it is getting toward evening and the day is almost done.” So he went in to stay with them.

Here is the gift of hospitality- the other gift (along with listening and remembering) that can- and must- be offered in the midst of pain and loss. It was not unusual to invite a fellow traveler in this way, but it is evidence that they were listening and hadn’t just turned off their ears (as well as eyes) when Jesus accused them of slowness.

24:30 When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 24:31 At this point their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Then he vanished out of their sight. 24:32 They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he was speaking with us on the road, while he was explaining the scriptures to us?”

And here, in the simple bread, and the sacrament, Jesus was made known, and they understood and received what they had been hearing. Communion is hospitality, communion is the shared meal, and communion is the making known. What is learned on the road becomes real in the community, in the church, and in the sacraments. But it cannot be received without the law. Have you ever been “forgiven” by someone you didn’t think you had wronged? It doesn’t heal- because it is out of place.

Thinking again on our brothers and sisters in Washington today, the same thing is happening. Fellow travelers, many come from a distance, and many with stories of mourning to share with others, are coming together. They are ostensibly there to raise money and awareness to help stop brain cancer, but the experience will provide more. It will provide a context for shared identity and understanding between people traveling the same road- not only literally and figuratively. It will provide a context for grace. And it may even provide the impetus for something even greater. I have been a diabetes ally for years because when I was in high school, a nurse who belonged to our church was looking for more counselors for a Type I diabetes camp. I went in knowing nothing about diabetes and came out at least partially understanding their pain and the invisibility of their challenges to most people. So, just like the disciples on the road, and just like Team Miller and Team Zion, I “got up that very hour”, “returned to [my] Jerusalem” and “told what had happened on the road”, how I had seen suffering, forgiveness, and ultimately grace, and how I too recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”

May we all- those here, those traveling, those sick and in pain, every person touched by Zion and Christ’s church throughout the world- may we all have our eyes opened to Jesus in our fellow travelers on our road this week, and may we also be Jesus to our fellow travelers this week who are “debating what has happened” because it is too much to understand. And when we feel lost and alone, may we find hope in Moses and the prophets, and in the grace of God revealed in an imperfect world and perfected through Jesus Christ.

Amen

One of my favorite musicals of all times is 1776. As long as you can look past a bit of bawdy humor, it is a fairly historically accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence (aside, of course, from the fact that the Continental Congress was not originally set to music).

It makes me laugh, and it makes me proud of the work that went into creating a new nation by all sides, even those who disagreed with the cause of independency. However, the most inspirational moment takes place when one member of the congress refuses to sign the declaration: John Dickinson.

Let me make this clear: while I respect the concerns of some recent bloggers (for example Kurt Willems) about the morality of the American Revolution, I’m not writing to debate that one way or another.

Back to the story. The decision had been made for the sake of mutual protection of the colonies and the congress that not only must any vote for independency be unanimous of all the colonies, but that no man could sit in the congress without signing his name to the declaration. While Dickinson steadfastly hoped for reconciliation with England and that the colonies would continue as such, he was outvoted by his fellow delegates from Pennsylvania.

Here’s the important part: when the time came to sign, rather than doing something unconscionable to him, he elected of his own free will to resign the congress and join the militia in what he thought was an ill-advised, losing war where he knew (from General George Washington’s dispatches) that soldiers were dying brutally on a daily basis.

Now, as I said, I may disagree with the man, but that kind of courage and principle is rarely seen in any politician. This is in part because it amounts to suicide for one’s career, something Dickinson acknowledged and yet chose to follow through anyway. He was an accomplished man of much reputation who sacrificed not for money or philandery (as is more often the case historically and recently), but for the chance to give his life alongside people he respected.

So why did this land in a blog on Christian ministry? It landed here because Dickinson exemplifies what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call costly discipleship. Both were guided by their ethical and moral principles to take paths that were difficult, unpopular, and would very likely cost them their lives. Christians today are sociologically encouraged by consumerism and an astounding level of choice to choose both a congregation/denomination and a personal theology based not on principle but on what sounds good and “works” for us.

So-called prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen have thrived based on this mentality because really, if presented with an equal choice between being told you are a sinner who needs saving and being told that if you pray hard enough you can be rich and famous, the second option seems more attractive to most. It is only with proper grounding in Biblical reality and a strong sense of ethics that the lie that God wants you to have what you want is exposed.

The oppositional truth to this is more than inconvenient; it is personally demanding. God want you to know his grace and serve his kingdom. Don’t believe me? The second and third petitions of the Lord’s prayer (your kingdom come, your will be done…) seem pretty clear on the topic. So, although it may not have been directly a religious expression, I commend to you his ethical model and Give Ye John Dickinson.

Jesus Washing Peter's FeetI usually elect to offer my comments on other people’s blogs either at the blog or in Facebook/Twitter streams. In this case, I need to reblog the entire post.

Here’s why: this describes one of my core goals as a sociologist of religion- to be academically responsible and provide useful understand to real practitioners. I could not have said it better except for making it specific to my own field (the author is in HIV research, not religious research).

This is servant leadership, and it is diaconally oriented in its nature- bridging two worlds and providing the “stuff” necessary to assist others without demanding to be recognized at center stage. I meant to write this; now I can just pass it on to you instead. So please, read the whole entry and comment, here or at orgtheory. I think you will find it a worthwhile investment. Thank you, and Peace.

I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on orgtheory.net. I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time.  I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the chall … Read More

via orgtheory.net

Union Gospel Mission Seattle

First, listen to the song On a Corner in Memphis by Todd Agnew and let yourself take the words in a couple of times. I’m working on about time 83.

Now think back to the last time you saw a panhandler on the off-ramp, and consider how you reacted. Did you give her money? I’m guessing most of you did not. And one key reason is that you don’t want to be an enabler of drugs, alcohol, or whatever else that person’s pet sin might be, right?

Besides, somewhere along the way, someone probably said something like “You know, if you gave someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish they can eat forever.” Maybe you even listened to the Arrested Development song and are willing to admit it.

In this case, both approaches might be wrong. I want to propose a third way, one that eschews condescension toward our neighbor in favor of love, real understanding, and empowerment. Continue reading

I am amazed at the depth and breadth of ministry discussion that happens among Christian leaders online. A recent discussion was initiated by a friend with the status “How does your church define active membership?”* If you’re in a hurry to see what I mean, click this link to the see the entire transcript of the 64 responses on Google Docs. A little discussion of my thoughts on the opening question and some of the other conundrums follows in the rest of this post.

Continue reading

I was a little surprised yesterday when I received a Facebook message titled “Thank You!!!” from a “shirt-string friend”, someone I knew only through her membership in a local Bible literacy initiative I had been webmaster for.

I was more than a little humbled when I opened it and read that because of a paper I posted online, her life had changed and she was now training to become a pastor.

Continue reading