Sunday, April 26, 2020
Third Sunday of Easter Year A
Elusive God, companion on the way, you walk behind, beside, beyond; you catch us unawares. Break through the disillusionment and despair clouding our vision, that, with wide-eyed wonder, we may find our way and journey on as messengers of your good news. Amen.
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.
All readings for the week:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
1. How might believing help us to see, rather than the other way around?
2. What "miracles" have you hoped to see in order to believe? Were they really necessary?
3. What is the connection between faith and hospitality in this story?
4. What experiences of community--of communion--have opened your own eyes to God?
5. How can we "reach" one another, "break bread" together, and be the church as we observe physical distancing?
by Kate Matthews
Throughout the Gospels we have seen and heard of many astonishing events: healings, exorcisms, the raising of Lazarus, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, and the sky opening up with the voice of God addressing those present. These many, convincing "revelations" are powerful, but no more powerful than the simple acts and events of this passage from Luke about the Emmaus story.
Friends are making their way from one place--a place of hope-turned-into-despair, a place of perplexity and the unbelievable (and "idle") tales of women--to another place: Emmaus. In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner writes evocatively of the many ways we seek to find a place, an Emmaus, to run to when we have lost hope or don't know what to do, a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too.
We're on the road together
Perhaps we are a bit surprised to hear Buechner even say that "Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday." Have you ever felt as if you, or your fellow church members, are "gone to Emmaus," even though you appear to be "in church"?
What do you think took, or drove, you there, to a place of forgetting, of giving up?
The community of faith, of course, is called to support the "opening of their eyes"--of all of our "eyes," really, because we, as the church, are truly "companions on the road"--and it's fitting that the word "companion" is rooted in the words for "bread" and "with." Surely, we are on this road, the journey of faith, together, breaking bread, together.
What happens when bread is broken?
In fact, these beautiful narratives of resurrection appearances are powerful stories of community, of believers, doubters, and strugglers gathering and breaking apart, and gathering again, coming together and telling the stories of their experiences, sharing their memories of Jesus--his acts and his words--and then, like people of faith today, shining the light of Scripture on that experience and coming to new understandings and new inspiration.
But that's not all. They sit down at table together and break bread, and often, more than intellectual understanding (their minds), they come to see with their hearts what was right before them all along.
What are stories from your own life, when your eyes and your heart and your mind were opened because someone welcomed you, or because you opened your own heart, your door, your life, to a stranger, someone you never expected to be a blessing to you?
A world rocked by one death
If the world of the disciples had been turned upside down by the life and teachings of this person Jesus, think of how that same world had been "rocked" by his death. Even so, they haven't had time to absorb that calamity when new stories have sprung up.
Think of times when the news, or your own life, unfolded in ways that shook the foundations of what you believed in, what you counted on, perhaps too fast for you to process and integrate into your understanding. What did you do to find peace and balance, and to build new foundations?
In the midst of our own calamity
Certainly our present struggle with the pandemic that is raging around the world--a struggle that, ironically, has the power to unite us globally in remarkable and unprecedented ways--has caused many of us to follow the news and to feel anxious in ways we have never before imagined.
Many, but of course not all of us, are used to a measure of everyday safety in our lives; however, the threat of this pernicious virus has shaken the foundations of that kind of security. Like those disciples long ago, we're trying to integrate new information and experience into our old worldview. We may feel especially anxious and uncertain about what the future will bring.
Unsure about what to count on
We wonder if there will be enough of the things we need not just for the enjoyment of life but indeed for its very preservation. We worry about our own health and even more about the health of our loved ones, and our neighbors and friends...and strangers, too, all of God's children at risk.
The invisible enemy that provokes all this anxiety is hard to fight, and in the midst of that fear, uneasy resentments arise, blame and frustration abound, and suspicion and division ensue. We're not sure what to believe, or what to think, or what to expect, or even what to dare hope for.
Perhaps, then, we can relate a bit to those disciples long ago, trying to make sense of life after losing the One who had brought new meaning, new hope, new trust to their lives. Where was the next chapter of their story leading them, in the midst of this sorrow and loss?
God is still God
The good news is that God is still God, always. And the Bible tells us that God is good and generous and can be counted on, in every age and every circumstance. "Great is thy faithfulness," we sing, inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23, and remembering that God's steadfast love never ceases, that God's tender mercies never come to an end but instead are new each morning.
Many people on social media are making the light-hearted observation that waking up in quarantine each day is a bit like the movie, "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray's character relives the same day over and over again. Isn't it a source of comfort and strength and perhaps courage to remember that every day we wake up to God's mercies, new again each morning?
The story of God's generosity and care
If real estate is about location, location, location, then I believe that the Bible is about hospitality, hospitality, hospitality. We might hear and tell this week's Emmaus story, then, as one of hospitality and its deeper meanings.
Hospitality isn't a condescending or begrudging, dutiful sharing with others (preferably from our excess, not our substance--that way, we won't feel it so much): it's an openness to the Other, to our neighbor.
It's also an openness to the lessons they teach, the different perspectives and insights they share, and to the change that may follow. Hospitality welcomes the new learning that change brings, however uncomfortable and perhaps even painful that change may be.
Making transformation possible
Hospitality and openness make transformation possible, especially when brought to us from the most unexpected places by the most unlikely people, particularly by "strangers," especially those considered "other."
If we believe that we must see Jesus "in the least of these," as he taught us, then we have a clear mandate from him to share our table and its abundance with all who are hungry, physically and/or spiritually.
In times of fear, courage
And so, we are hearing, more and more, that there are lessons to be learned in the midst of our troubles and uncertainty and our fears, lessons about generosity, about sharing with strangers who then become unexpected sources of hope and help, of not fearing the "Other," of breaking our bread both literally and figuratively with all of God's children.
Sharing medical advances and data, caring for one another (neighbors we have never met!) and speaking up for those hit hardest by the disaster (because for many, it is exactly that, bringing devastation of many kinds), finding creative ways to nurture community and friendship and family across "social" distances...these are all expressions of hospitality and generosity.
We are called to be generous toward, and supportive of, the frontline workers in both hospitals and grocery stores; we're called to learn about the ways racism plays a role in the disproportionate harm to many; we're called to open our hearts and minds and eyes to the reality of the suffering of our sisters and our brothers. How will we respond?
Hungry bodies, hungry souls
In the church, we can sometimes neglect both spiritual and physical hunger as we go about our "church business." Or perhaps we have had a thriving hunger ministry with our food pantries and hot meal programs, while unintentionally neglecting additional ways to feed the spirit.
Yes, the spirit is fed when we are fully engaged in mission, but we also need times of quiet, of reflection and meditation, of deep prayer and meaningful worship, of spiritual growth through the arts and through nature.
What do people hunger for?
In one of my favorite reflections, Anthony B. Robinson writes, "People want to experience the divine, the sacred, the holy. They are dying for want of grace, wonder, mystery, and not for want of by-laws, committees, and sign-up lists. At least they don't want those things instead of God."
In what ways have you known hunger, both physical and spiritual? Who was the unexpected person who shared nourishment with you, and in doing so, transformed your life?
The power of hospitality to transform
R. Alan Culpepper draws on the work of Eugene Wehrli to note wonderful parallels between this story and that of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31). Both stories involve the interpretation of Scripture ("Moses and the prophets"), table sharing (or not!) and "someone rising from the dead."
Again, hospitality has the potential to transform our lives if it opens our eyes even more than we have opened our doors. It's not simply a matter of being nice; hospitality is justice and generosity embodied, a spiritual practice that both requires and brings spiritual growth.
Possibilities of transformation
As the United Church of Christ strives to extend and embody extravagant hospitality, where are the possibilities of transformation within our congregations and our selves? How is God still speaking to your congregation in the simple breaking of bread, the sharing of the story, the study of Scripture?
Do we need to open our eyes to what is happening, each time we come to the table of God's grace? Perhaps, in a time of increasing polarization in our public discourse (and that is putting it gently), we in the church can find common ground in the simple but faithful practice of hospitality.
A challenge for hospitable people
It will take practice to develop this discipline because it's not easy to welcome all of God's children along with the hopes, and dreams, and beliefs that animate their lives and may transform our own.
There's the added challenge of offering hospitality while we are all having to practice social distancing in a way that makes gathering in our church buildings impossible. What creative ways are you finding (and sharing) to welcome spiritually hungry people to the table, even if that table is a symbolic one? How can we break bread together in virtual ways?
Many different ways to be hospitable
I'd like to share two examples of challenges to my own sense of hospitality: first, watching a short clip of a Sunday news show where three religious voices, all with a Christian perspective very different from my own, were expressing their thoughts on the decline in religious practice in the United States.
I found that it takes an extra effort on my part to quiet my mind and listen to what they're saying, and maybe even to find common ground with them: it demands a kind of "intellectual/mental hospitality" that I practice more readily toward non-Christian sisters and brothers than I do toward Christians who disagree strongly with my perspectives.
I sometimes wonder if I could sit down to dinner with these "other" Christians, and be at ease (or not), but in any case, to feel that I met them as my brothers, not as "others." (In this case, they all happened to be men.) It seems to me that many folks become unexpected friends because they sat down to dinner and broke bread together. (And, of course, they would need to be willing to sit down with me!)
Re-learning one another's stories
Second, as a community and nation, I wonder if we might open ourselves to entertain stories and histories that will change our understanding of who we are and how we have been in relation to other peoples, other nations. When I was a history major in school, there was so much I was never taught; as an adult, I read Howard Zinn's work, A People's History of the United States, and it changed my life.
I realized the need to fill in those tremendous gaps in my education, and my reading in retirement often focuses on the stories I've missed. Books like The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead); Some of My Friends Are...: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships (Deborah Plummer); Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (Barbara Brown Taylor); Night (Elie Wiesel); Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times (Irshad Manji); Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie); The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Isabel Wilkerson); and Janesville (Amy Goldstein) would be powerful "companion pieces" to our Bible study and our preaching, as would a number of fine films that also delve into the stories of those who walk this way with us.
You are welcome to share your suggestions of books and films on this theme in the comments on our Sermon Seeds Facebook page (link below).
Listening and learning
Reading good novels and non-fiction, including biographies and memoirs--"listening" deeply to the stories of others--can help us to open our hearts and lives to others, and to see Jesus in everyone we meet. Perhaps, if we could see ourselves and those we consider "other" in new ways, we might practice a new humility and graciousness in sharing the blessings of God more generously, more equitably.
Intellectual hospitality, and hospitality of the heart, both open our lives to the stories, suffering, gifts and hopes of others. But it takes a lot of practice, and the change of heart and mind it requires often presents a difficult challenge to what has become our deeply entrenched comfort zones. It requires our eyes, or better our hearts, to be opened to what is right before us.
Glimpses of God's presence
The experience of these two travelers (one may have been a woman, like other New Testament pairs) was fleeting, just as our glimpses of God, or brushes with God's presence, tend to be. We look back on our experiences and process them, understanding them better "in the rear view mirror" than we did face-to-face.
How does God still speak to you today, not only through the encounter these early Christians had with Jesus, but through your own encounter with Jesus, in the breaking of bread, the sharing of stories, the study of Scripture?
We're not just hearing/reading a story about something that happened to other people, long ago and far away. The same amazing things, the wonderful works of God, are happening here, today, in our lives, too, if we open our eyes and see, and then, maybe our hearts, too, will burn within us. When we struggle with questions of meaning and we just can't understand what's happening around us, the answer is often right before us.
The promise is for all of God's children
So much in this Sunday's readings, as in all of Scripture, calls for our response. The crowd in the reading from Acts, hearing Peter's passionate sermon, asks what they should do, and he calls them to repent and be baptized. But he also makes a promise: they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This promise is not just for them, but for their children (for us today, their descendants in faith), and "for all who are far away, all whom the Lord our God calls to God." If we understand these words as meaning "the Gentiles," which was unthinkable for many in the early church, we may look around and wonder who the "unthinkable" ones are, those who are "far away"--at least from us--but nevertheless called by God.
Again, how does the hospitality of a gracious-in-every-age God call for a response from us that repents our failure to include and welcome and empower even the least likely and the most unexpected, "all who are far away"? What sort of transformation might that work in our lives and our communities?
How can we love one another along the way?
The reading from First Peter may be addressed to those who are not only metaphorically "aliens" but concretely so, those who feel "not at home" where they are, perhaps stripped of their rights to participate fully in the life of the community and to enjoy its protections and benefits.
If our response to all of this good news, and to the call of a gracious, generous, hospitable, compassionate and still-speaking God, is to "love one another deeply from the heart," how will our lives look and feel different than they do now?
What would this troubled world look like, what would it feel like, if justice, mercy, kindness and humility informed and formed our relationships--internationally as well as interpersonally? What is the connection between all of this and the peace that Jesus breathed into his disciples when he appeared to them in last week's reading from the Gospel of John (20:19-31)?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles a sermon reflection on Matthew 21:1-11) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Anselm of Canterbury, 11th century
"I believe in order that I might understand."
Benjamin Franklin, 18th century
"Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see."
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"I can believe anything, provided it is incredible."
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"God is at home; it is we who have gone for a walk."
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around."
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 16th century
"All sorrows are less with bread."
Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century
"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
Richard Bach, 20th century
"Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years."
Gwendolyn Brooks, 20th century
"We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond."
Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 20th century
"You wake from dreams of doom and--for a moment--you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love's calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.
Sunday, April 26, 2020