Easter 7 A
May 24, 2020 “Constantly Devoting Themselves to Prayer”
In both our reading from Acts and our reading from John’s gospel, there’s a lot of praying going on. None of it is happening in a church, though. In Acts, those who’ve been closest to Jesus have come through the trauma of his death, known him in new ways after the resurrection, and are wondering what their lives will be like now that he has ascended into heaven.
Easter 7 A May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14 Pastor Susan Henry
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
John 17:1-11 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Constantly Devoting Themselves to Prayer”
In both our reading from Acts and our reading from John’s gospel, there’s a lot of praying going on. None of it is happening in a church, though. In Acts, those who’ve been closest to Jesus have come through the trauma of his death, known him in new ways after the resurrection, and are wondering what their lives will be like now that he has ascended into heaven. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses [everywhere],” Jesus has told them. He is gone now from their sight, and they don’t quite know what to do with themselves. A couple messengers of God tell them there’s nothing more to see here, and so they set out for Jerusalem.
Their journey takes them back to the city, back to an upstairs room where they will stay together . . . and wait together . . . and not know when the waiting will end. We can relate to that. In that shared space, what did they do? Did they get bored? Were they restless? Did they just want things to go back to “normal,” whatever that could possibly mean after Jesus’ death, rising, and ascension and his promise that the Spirit would empower them?
There’s a lot we don’t know about their time of self-quarantine, but we do know this: there was a lot of praying going on. The writer of Acts (who also wrote Luke’s gospel) says that those men and women “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” That’s what they did in their semi-isolation from the world around them. They prayed. Constantly. They devoted themselves to prayer.
Millions of us who are in semi-isolation from the world around us have been baking sourdough bread, adjusting to our kids’ online learning, and working at home in our jammies or out in the world in our PPE. We’re hanging out with our cats and walking our dogs, having virtual cocktail parties with our friends and Zoom meetings with our families. We’re cooking more, feeling more exhausted or lonely or anxious, making do without haircuts, and catching up on our reading. We’re ordering takeout, walking or running to stay sane and healthy, and wearing masks when we’re out and about. And we are praying.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not “constantly devoting myself to prayer.” In fact, I have done more worrying than praying, more distracting myself by watching HGTV than praying, and more railing about the news than praying. Prayer-wise, things are out of balance in my life. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. Someone told me recently that with all the unscheduled time they now have at home, they’ve been surprised by how little they’re praying and by how hard it is to pray.
That Jesus’ friends were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” leaves me feeling inadequate and guilty. Out of some defensiveness, I want to know -- with all that praying going on -- who left that crowded room to get some money or go to the market, who cooked and served and cleaned up after supper, who took out the trash and addressed people’s cabin fever and helped them remember why they were staying in that room together. Do you wonder about that, too?
But just beyond my – our? -- defensiveness about not praying “enough” right now – whatever “enough” might mean – lies a gracious invitation to pray. So let’s think about prayer, especially in this time of pandemic. Three things come to mind for me. First, that praying is about sharing what’s on our hearts. It’s about being honest and vulnerable in our relationship with God who loves us. John’s gospel is full of language about Jesus and the Father being one, about Jesus wanting that kind of intimacy for us and with us in our relationship with God and with him.
So, what’s on your heart? Worry about your kids or your health or the suffering of the world? As an old hymn puts it, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” What else is on your heart? Sadness, frustration, or anger because all the end-of-senior-year events got cancelled, and what graduation will look like is totally up in the air, and it’s not fair? Tell God about it. Come as you are. Pray with words or tears. Bring your disappointment and your fury. Trust that God wants us to share what’s on our hearts, however heavy or joyful our hearts may be, because we are beloved of God. Come even when we don’t know how to pray, because, as St. Paul reminds us, the Spirit intercedes for us then, “with sighs too deep for words.”
Sometimes other people’s words can help us pray. We pray the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer or this prayer: “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Decades old, that prayer is part of the Evening Prayer service in our hymnals – and it’s a powerful prayer for our time.
Now, I’m not constantly devoting myself to prayer as did those in our story from Acts, but I’ve noticed that there is one prayer that I am constantly praying. Our former bishop, Margaret Payne, once said that, as bishop and when she was a pastor, her go-to prayer in almost any situation was this: “Help me be who you need for me to be.” I’m sure I’ve prayed that a thousand times over these past few months. Maybe this sounds strange, but I don’t actually have to remember to pray it anymore; it just appears, unbidden. I think that’s the Spirit’s work.
We’ve considered how praying is about sharing what’s on our heart, so let’s turn to a second and perhaps liberating way to think about prayer. Not all prayers have words. In suffering or sorrow, our only prayers might be the Spirit’s “sighs too deep for words.” Or our prayers may be what our hands do: sew masks or scrub-caps to keep nurses as safe as possible, prepare meals for the guys who live at the veterans’ house, or create paper hearts to post on our windows in support of those whose work puts them at risk while we are able to stay at home. Our feet can pray, too, taking us to the grocery store to pick up some items for our next-door neighbors or leading us out to the back yard when our creative, curious, adventurous child calls, again and again, “Mom, come see this!” Music may call our bodies to bend in lament or bow in reverence or dance with joy as we pray without words.
I wonder whether prayers with and without words were part of the constant prayer in that upstairs room in Jerusalem long ago, as bread was baked with care, then broken and shared with grateful hearts; as stories about Jesus were told and retold, nurturing patience in waiting and kindling hope for the future. Maybe, just maybe, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” – spoken, silent, sung, shared – was transformative for those friends of Jesus who self-quarantined as they waited for what God’s future would bring. Perhaps all that prayer brought them together and held them together. And perhaps such things don’t just happen long ago, but today as well.
Let’s go back to that first thing about prayer -- sharing what’s on our hearts. Second – not all prayers have words. Here’s a third thing to consider. We don’t pray alone. We have company when we pray. Given all the people who pray the Lord’s Prayer all around the world, at the very moment when you or I pray it, we are surely not the only ones. We don’t pray alone.
But there’s another way in which it is true that we don’t pray alone – and that is that Jesus prays for us. Have you ever thought about Jesus praying for you -- or Jesus praying for us? Our gospel reading for today includes more praying that’s not in a church. Instead, we are still in the room where Jesus and his friends shared a last meal on the night before his crucifixion. Three chapters of John’s gospel are about how Jesus is preparing his disciples for his absence from them. We’ve heard some of this during this Eastertide as Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and as he promises that where he is, there they will be also. He is the way, the truth, and the life, he tells them. “I will not leave your orphans,” he promises. Those who love as Jesus calls them to love and who keep his word are assured that Jesus and the Father “will come to them and make [their] home with them.”
In the last of those chapters, in today’s gospel, Jesus is praying for his disciples. He lets them (and us) glimpse the intimate, loving relationship between Jesus and the Father. “Protect these whom you have given me, these whom you love,” Jesus says, “’so that they may be one, as we are one.’” And a few verses later, Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
Generation after generation, those who know Jesus tell others about him. Jesus prayed not only for his first disciples but for the others whom they would tell. He prayed for those who kept the story going. He prayed for those who told your great-grandparents and your grandparents and your parents – and he prays for you, for me, for us together – that we may all be one.
I remember being kind of stunned by the idea of Jesus praying for me. It’s still pretty stunning. I don’t know if this is news to you or not, but take it to heart and take comfort in it. Know that as you share with God in prayer what’s on your heart, with or without words, Jesus is praying for you.
After the ascension, the men and women who were closest to Jesus waited together in an upstairs room for the Holy Spirit to show up. They waited . . . and waited . . . not knowing what the future would bring. And while they waited there in semi-isolation from the world, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Not knowing what the future will bring to us who wait in semi-isolation from the world, let us pray, too.
May we share what’s really on our hearts, trusting that God loves us and has made God’s home with us.
May we offer our prayers in our own words, in others’ words, or in wordless ways. And, when we have nothing to offer, may the Spirit pray in us with “sighs too deep for words.”
As friends of Jesus whose lives bear witness to the love of God we know in Jesus himself, may we find strength and comfort and joy in his praying for us.
1. Romans 8:26
2. John 17:20-21a
Easter 6 A
May 17, 2020
Promises and Presence
Where I went to college, lutefisk was served in the cafeteria on special occasions. Gorgeous handmade wool sweaters with intricate patterns were imported from Norway and sold in the bookstore. And each year on Syttende Mai, Norwegian Independence Day, St. Olaf students rallied around the flagpole at Old Main early in the morning and sang the Norwegian national anthem.
Easter 6 A May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31 Pastor Susan Henry
Psalm 66:8-9, 16-20 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
John 14:15-21, 23 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Promises and Presence
Where I went to college, lutefisk was served in the cafeteria on special occasions. Gorgeous handmade wool sweaters with intricate patterns were imported from Norway and sold in the bookstore. And each year on Syttende Mai, Norwegian Independence Day, St. Olaf students rallied around the flagpole at Old Main early in the morning and sang the Norwegian national anthem. In Norwegian, of course. In four parts. By heart. (I only ever learned the first three words.) Syttende Mai, by the way, is the seventeenth of May – as is today.
When I was there, St. Olaf students published a literary magazine, and I remember one particular issue devoted to humor. Larry Hanson, who I think made his living later as a cartoonist, no doubt skewered the lutefisk-loving, sweater-wearing, anthem-singing, Norwegian-obsessed campus culture with some clever cartoons in that humor issue. But what I actually recall is an essay on “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John” that purported to be a scholarly paper published in a reputable theological journal. It wasn’t, of course. The author noted that the Holy Spirit is often portrayed as a dove, but he argued that, because a single letter had been mistakenly inserted in some important Greek manuscripts, we have missed out on a more appropriate symbol. The writer of John uses a particular Greek word – parakletos – for the Spirit, and it might be translated as Comforter, Counselor, Paraclete, Helper, or Advocate. The author of this pretend article argued, however, that the very earliest manuscripts -- the ones without the additional letter -- had revealed that the Greek word was actually paraketos – and so the dove should really be . . . a parakeet.
Syttende Mai this year is, liturgically speaking, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, and the reading from John’s gospel today picks up where we left off last week. Jesus is still with the disciples on the very night when Judas has gone off to betray him and when Peter will deny him three times before morning comes. Jesus’ imminent arrest, trial, and crucifixion loom large that night, and even though Jesus has also spoken to the disciples of resurrection and ascension, they are filled with dread. Fear and grief gnaw at them when they anticipate the loss of Jesus’ presence with them. He has said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” but trouble is in the air, and what the future holds is uncertain at best. We can relate to that.
Jesus has given them a new commandment – to love as he has loved them – and he has reassured them, reminding them that because they have seen him, they have seen the loving Father who sent him, not to condemn the world, but “in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus continues to assure them that, whatever happens in the future, they will not have to cope with it alone. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Jesus promises them the Paraclete. A strange word to our ears, it literally means “one who will come alongside and accompany” them. In the Greek, parakletos. Now, did you notice that Jesus promises “another Advocate,” another Paraclete – which means there is one who has already come alongside them and has been accompanying them. This is, of course, Jesus himself. He promises that even though he will not be physically present with them, the Spirit – the Paraclete – will speak the truth to them, abide with them, guide them, comfort them, teach them, mentor them, be their companion. The Spirit will do what Jesus himself has been doing. This is Jesus’ promise: “I will not leave you orphaned.” How poignant that promise is – for the disciples and for us.
Jesus has been with those whom he calls his friends in the only way they know anyone’s presence. He promises that, after his resurrection and ascension, he will be with them through the work of the Spirit, no longer subject to the limitations of being physically present. Until now, they literally had to all be in the same place for Jesus to be with them. Now he opens up unimagined, surprising possibilities. Wherever they are from then on – traveling together or when only two or three share a meal or when they go their separate ways to tell others about him -- through the work of the Spirit, the Paraclete, Jesus will be with them. They won’t be left to their own devices or abandoned when they most need Jesus’ presence with them.
We who are as uncertain and fearful as the disciples that night can’t imagine how, on our own, we could get through the mess the world is in right now. Anxiety, loneliness, anger, and sorrow are too often our companions nowadays, and they wear us out. They can steal our hope, our creative energy, and our joy. Do you know what I mean? But here’s the good news: the Paraclete keeps fulfilling Jesus’ promise to not abandon his friends. The Spirit keeps Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphans. Really, Jesus says, he’ll move right in with us. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
If we take Jesus’ promise to heart – if we let it make its home in us – we will come through this hard time very differently than if we are afraid we’ve been left to fend for ourselves and to find our own way. We are not on our own. Jesus promises that he will not leave us orphans, not leave us without one who, out of deep love for us, has already come alongside us, is accompanying us, is abiding with us.
The disciples bore witness to the presence of the Spirit, the Paraclete, when they found themselves in dark times and dangerous places. It seems that they took Jesus at his word, and they discovered that Jesus keeps his promises. In such a time as this, when we might find ourselves in dark inner times and dangerous outer places, we need the Spirit, the Paraclete, to speak truth to us, guide us, comfort us, teach us, mentor us, be our companion. And in such a time as this, we will surely discover that Jesus continues to keep his promises.
On any other day, I’d put an “Amen” here and call this sermon done. But on this day, I’m adding a postscript. Jesus keeps his promises, while the Spirit keeps showing up in unexpected ways and places. A UCC colleague and friend in Vermont and I talked yesterday morning about what we we’d be preaching today. She shared a moving story from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, and I amused her with my St. Olaf Paraclete/parakeet story. Later in the day, she called back to say that she’d been checking out last Sunday’s zoom church in a congregation where she knows a number of people. As familiar faces appeared, she enjoyed seeing them at worship. At one point, one of the women left the room for a moment, and when she returned, she had a parakeet perched on her shoulder. Really. I’m not making this up. The Spirit, it seems, has quite a sense of humor.
So, on my way to an “Amen,” let me say yet again that Jesus keeps his promises, and the Spirit keeps showing up in surprising ways – accompanying us through darkness and danger -- and nurturing hope, creative energy, and sheer joy.
Amen1. John 3:17
Easter 5 A
May 10, 2020
What God Is Like
The gospel for today takes us back to before Jesus’ death and resurrection, which might seem like a strange place to go in this Easter season. We’re back to the night when things are about to fall apart, as far as Jesus’ friends and followers are concerned.
Easter 5 A May 10, 2020
1 Peter 2:2-10 Pastor Susan Henry
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
John 14:1-14 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
What God Is Like
The gospel for today takes us back to before Jesus’ death and resurrection, which might seem like a strange place to go in this Easter season. We’re back to the night when things are about to fall apart, as far as Jesus’ friends and followers are concerned. They are together with Jesus on what we’ve come to call Maundy Thursday, the day during Holy Week when we recall how Jesus and those closest to him shared a last meal together and how, after supper, he washed their feet and gave them a new commandment. “Love one another, as I have loved you,” he told them; “that’s how people will know that you are my disciples. That’s how they’ll know what God is like.”
A little later, Jesus says that one among them will betray him, but nobody seems to know who that will be. Even when Judas leaves, having been told by Jesus to go and “Do quickly what you are going to do,” the others think Judas is going out to buy things for their Passover meal or to give something to the poor.
And, on top of the weirdness of having their feet washed by Jesus, the gut punch of knowing that one of them will betray him, and this new commandment that’s all about loving as they’ve been loved, Jesus tells Peter that, before morning comes, Peter will deny Jesus three times. Nobody, it seems, understands what’s going on, but they know that Jesus is troubled, that very odd things are happening, that something bad is coming – and that they’re about to get caught up in it. Something beyond their control is going to leave them wanting their old lives back.
Jesus knows that more of what they had won’t be an option, and so he speaks to their confusion, their anxiety, their fear. That’s where our gospel for today begins. Through three whole chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus will say goodbye to those who are dear to him, and he’ll prepare them for life that will look very different from life as they’ve known it until then. He helps them take the long view, guides them beyond where their fears have led them, and promises that he will not abandon them. The old way of knowing him will no longer be an option, but they will come to know him in a new way, a surprising, unexpected, life-giving way.
He starts by meeting them where they are – confused, anxious, and afraid. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m told not to worry or not to be afraid, the knot in my stomach doesn’t necessarily go away. In fact, I’m likely to point out why it’s perfectly reasonable for me to be afraid right then, so don’t tell me not to be. And, anyway, just commanding me to not do something doesn’t automatically make it happen.
Jesus, however, doesn’t command the disciples to not be afraid. He doesn’t tell them to dig down deep and get their act together and not be such babies. Instead, he says, “You don’t have to let your hearts be troubled, and here’s why: you trust God, and you can trust me, too.” In John’s gospel, “believing” isn’t about giving assent to certain ideas about God. It’s about relationship. It’s about trust.
“Hold onto this promise,” Jesus says; “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would have I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” These are verses that bring comfort to people who grieve. They console people whose hearts ache because more of what they had is no longer an option. These are verses I know by heart – and you may, too.
In this time of pandemic when we feel confused and anxious and full of grief, these verses might speak not just to our hope for our future dwelling with God in the good company of Jesus, but to our troubled hearts’ longing for Jesus’ presence with us now and to our present yearning to dwell where God is. “You know the way there,” Jesus tells the disciples – and us. Thomas, God bless him, really wants an address to enter into his GPS so he can see what road to take and where to turn. But Jesus says that this is not about a destination, it’s about a relationship – a way of being together always. Always – including now. “I myself am the way,” Jesus says. “If you know me – and you do – you know my Father and you’ve seen him.” No GPS is necessary.
Philip – God bless him, too -- says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” I suppose we could picture Jesus about to tear his hair out because nobody seems to get what he’s saying, but I think it’s way more likely that Jesus speaks lovingly and tenderly to Philip. “Have I been with you all this time, dear Philip, and you still don’t know me? If you’ve seen me – and you have – you’ve already seen the Father. You know, God’s not an old white guy with a beard up on a cloud, Philip. When you hear me, you hear my Father. When you know my love for you – love that is about to take me to the cross – you know my Father’s love.”
Jesus messes with his disciples’ sense of place – of where God is – because Jesus tells them that where he himself is, there God is. Right then -- and in the time to come. Jesus is with those who are close to his heart on the night before his death will separate them from him, and nothing will ever be the same again. That is true, but that is not the end of the story. Resurrection isn’t even the end of the story. In the time between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, his followers meet him in new ways – in his unexpected presence among them, in the breaking of the bread, in his promise to send the Holy Spirit, in his sending them to become his presence in the confusing, anxious, grief-filled world they will still live in.
“You don’t have to let your hearts be troubled,” he has told them; “Our relationship will never end. Just as I am close to my Father’s heart, so you are close to my heart.” As scholar and preacher Karoline Lewis puts it, “[T]he Father has already come, is already present, in the life and ministry of Jesus. . . . There is nothing uncertain for [the disciples’] present or their future because of their relationship with Jesus. Of that Jesus wants them to be secure.”
They were afraid, confused, and anxious on that night when Jesus tended to their fear with his promises. In their as-yet-unknown future, it will be because they remember Jesus’ promises that they will seek to love each other as he has loved them. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the Spirit will make Jesus present not only to them, but through them, as they become his body in the world.
Having seen Jesus, having seen the Father, they will persevere in loving, cultivate patience in waiting, and be sustained by Jesus’ presence with them in bewildering, anxious, dark times. In loving others as Jesus has loved them, people will know that they are his disciples. And people will know what God is like.
The Spirit still makes Jesus present to us and through us so that the love of God continues to be revealed, even when more of what we and the world had isn’t an option. Spending time in a Maundy Thursday mindset lets us be with Jesus in all our fear and sorrow and anger and temptation to despair. Like Jesus’ friends long ago, we get to ask Jesus even our most naïve or cringe-worthy questions. We too hear Jesus’ command to love as we have been loved. We get comforted – told that we don’t have to let our hearts be troubled because the God we know in Jesus knows and loves and saves and is with us.
To be honest, the enormity of the economic disruption, the unspeakable amount of suffering and death caused by Covid-19, and the uncertainty with which we all live right now has lots of people wanting their old, often privileged, lives back. That’s understandable -- but maybe it’s not just or loving. Jesus has more to offer -- a surprising, abundant, new life in him, not just “someday” but every day. He has shown us what God is like, and the world really needs our witness to the love of God we know, especially as we know it in Jesus.
Now, when Jesus tells us that those who love him will do greater works than his, we might only take him literally when he’s really asking us to take him seriously. Our works of love may not look like his, but they may break through the fear and sorrow in which we’re mired right now and shine with Easter life. Even when more of what we had isn’t – and maybe shouldn’t be -- an option, we are loving one another. We who can stay home are doing so in order to protect those who can’t. We’re loving our neighbors by washing our hands and social distancing and wearing face coverings. We’re loving one another as Jesus has loved us by not insisting on our own way, by not demanding haircuts or steaks or big gatherings for ourselves that might well cost others their very lives. We’re loving others we might not even know by supporting Wellspring with donations of food or of money for the Diane Edson Fund because people are going hungry right now. I know you can add to this list of ways we are loving others as we have been loved. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s incredibly hard – like when it takes us where we do not want to go or reveals what we might not want to see in ourselves and our culture.
When so much seems to be falling apart around us, we might bookmark our Bibles at John 14 and return to today’s gospel for comfort and courage so that we can continue to bear witness to the love of God. Jesus has shown us what God is like. He will help us take the long view, and he’ll guide us beyond where our fears take us. He will never abandon us, but will keep us as close to his heart as he is to the Father’s heart. Dwelling in such an intimate place is how we will persevere in love.
Easter 4 A
May 3, 2020
When I was sorting through some odds and ends at home a couple days ago, I came across an old scrap of paper with three questions I had written on it: “What’s lost? What’s left? What’s possible?”
Easter 4 A May 3, 2020
Acts 2:42-47 Pastor Susan Henry
Psalm 23 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
John 10:1-10 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
When I was sorting through some odds and ends at home a couple days ago, I came across an old scrap of paper with three questions I had written on it: “What’s lost? What’s left? What’s possible?” I take it as a good sign that I have no idea what I was caught up in when those questions seemed important enough to literally hang onto. Whatever the crisis, I came through it – probably not unscathed, but definitely not still consumed by it. Like Jonah, I’d been “swallowed once deep in the dark / and came out alive after all.”
In this moment when the pandemic we’re collectively experiencing can feel deep and dark and all-consuming, these same three questions might be helpful to us individually and as a congregation. What’s lost? What’s left? What’s possible? Just being willing to ask those questions acknowledges that things are no longer as they were, and that it’s likely they will never be exactly the same again. There’s a lot of grief in that. A lot to lament.
As many people in our country have died of Covid-19 in eight weeks as lost their lives during eight years of the war in Vietnam. That is just incomprehensible to me. An equally unimaginable number of job losses have occurred, schools are closed for now, and our assumptions about how much control we have over our lives have taken a serious hit.
Graduations and birthday parties got cancelled; weddings are postponed; sports and concerts as we knew them have disappeared for now. We can no longer grieve the deaths of those we love surrounded by family and friends at funerals and cemeteries. Nor can we gather together here in this beautiful sanctuary for worship right now, much though we long to. So much loss. So much sorrow. So much to mourn. It is right and fitting to acknowledge our disappointment and honor our grief.
But if and when we feel overwhelmed by what’s lost, we might turn to the next question: “What’s left?” Well, we still worship – just in a new way. We gather in our homes, hear God’s word, break bread together, and are sent with a blessing to be a blessing. Worship has not been lost. I’m pretty sure Caroline and DJ’s families and friends will find some creative ways to mark their graduations and celebrate their accomplishments. Creativity and celebration haven’t disappeared. We’ll grieve along with Janet and her family that’s scattered from Michigan to South Africa on a day when we live-stream a memorial service for her mother Terry. Consolation and compassion and connection are not lost. Much has been lost, but a lot is still left.
This may sound surprising, but part of what’s left when we’re confronted with our illusions about having control over our lives, futures, and financial security is the Twenty-third Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” The Good Shepherd makes a way, protects, provides, is present -- no matter what valley we travel through. What’s left is exactly what – and who -- we need.
But what’s also left when so many thousands have died are families who are heartbroken and health care workers who are traumatized and exhausted. What’s left are nursing home residents, incarcerated women and men, and meatpacking plant employees who are afraid for their lives. What’s left are people of faith who see that “essential workers” are disproportionately brown and black people, immigrants, and women who can’t work from home, don’t have sick leave, and make minimum wage. Truth be told, some of what’s left are moral dilemmas for those of us who are Jesus’ followers, called to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and called to tend to the common good.
We grieve what’s lost. We’re grateful for – and sometimes distressed by – what’s left. In a way, that brings us to our reading from the book of Acts. Grief and gratitude over what’s been lost and what’s still left aren’t mentioned, but here we see a community of faith exploring what’s possible. We can learn from their experience.
The book of Acts and the gospel of Luke were written by the same author. The gospel tells the story of Jesus, and Acts tells the story of those who tell others about him. Luke’s gospel ends with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit and with an account of Jesus’ ascension. Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension and the wild story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Although Gentiles will later become part of communities that follow Jesus’ way, the earliest believers are Jewish, as Jesus was. Following the coming of the Spirit, Peter has been preaching to huge crowds about Jesus the Messiah, the one who was put to death and raised to new life. Many respond to Peter’s call to repentance, to baptism in Jesus’ name, and to a Spirit-led life in the community of believers.
The Holy Spirit creates and grows that community in record time, and our reading today tells us about the shared new life of those believers. Luke writes, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” Hmmm. Faithfully meet and learn together, share a ritual meal and pray together – does that sound familiar? These are practices that continue to shape our own worship, that continue to form our own community’s life in the Spirit, often in new ways. For us, what’s possible? A life of devotion, maybe a Zoom Bible study or adult forum, fellowship by way of phone calls and texts and cards, the breaking of bread as we commune apart and yet together, and prayers – many prayers. Prayers of lament, of trust, of gratitude. Prayers for wisdom, for courage, for strength. Prayers for health care workers, for national leaders, for a shared commitment to the common good. All of this – and more -- is possible.
In the midst of what was lost and what was left in that early community of believers, Luke says that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Some people obviously had enough and more, while others were going without what they actually needed. The community’s response was to see that everyone had life’s necessities, to care for one another, to serve others, to be Spirit-led. It’s a remarkable vision for life in Christian community -- and one that really unsettles most of us. But, I wonder . . . what is possible in this community?
Luke’s description of how the early believers sought to live together didn’t become the model for life in community, human nature being what it is, and it may in its own time have been more aspirational than actual, but we’re still called to struggle with what’s possible in our time, our crisis, our devotion, our community of faith.
Some of you might remember that, during the great recession in 2008, this congregation created a Share Fund. Some who had more than enough for themselves gave “with glad and generous hearts” to a fund that we made available to folks who were struggling financially so that they could, for example, cover a mortgage payment and keep their house. Livelihoods had been lost, and, for some people, not much was left. As a worshipping community, we “devoted [our]selves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers,” and the Holy Spirit led us to care deeply for one another’s well-being, much like those early believers did. We may find that in this current economic crisis, we will be drawn by the Spirit to create a new Share Fund through which we can love and care for one another.
After Pentecost, the earliest believers had to figure out what it meant to live as followers of Jesus’ way. When their old way of being a faithful Jew didn’t quite fit any more, and there was no clear new way forward, it was disorienting. There was no model for what it meant to now become a faithful Jew-who-followed-Jesus. What was lost? Familiar, traditional, communal practices that marked those people’s religious lives. There was grief in that loss.
And what was left? A conviction that the God who raised Jesus from death was the God whom they as Jews already knew and worshipped, the God who had led God’s people safely through all kinds of danger and struggle into freedom and new life, the God whom they knew as a shepherd who protected his flock and provided for them and did not abandon them in disorienting times or treacherous places. There was relief in that. Joy in what was left.
So, what then was possible? Luke writes, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” New ways of being in old places was possible for them, so they got together in the temple that still felt like home. For us, what’s possible is more like old ways of being in new places – worship ways of being in our homes right now. For them and for us, cooking and eating meals at home, finding joy – in relationships or in the beauty of creation, and living the abundant life Jesus promises is, by the Spirit, more than possible. People admired the way of life they saw in the early believers, and I hope people today might find our expression of that way worth a closer look, too.
The Holy Spirit has worked with what was lost, what was left, and what was possible in my own life, and I trust the Spirit’s work in our life together now. So, let’s review.
What’s been lost in this distressing, painful time? A lot – and so we rightly grieve.
What’s left in this anxious, complicated time? A lot – and so we search it out, name it and claim it, struggle with it or give thanks for it.
What’s possible in this strange, new, unsettling time? More than we can imagine right now -- and so we learn from the early believers about life in community. We gather our courage, and we pray for wisdom and strength and guidance. And we continue to live as resurrection people, as people of hope who trust that even if we get swallowed deep in the dark, we will come out alive after all.
.1. Carl Sandburg, “Losers”
House of Prayer Lutheran Church
April 26, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The author of the Gospel according to Luke is widely considered to be the master of narrative. Today’s gospel lesson is another of his literary achievements. In the story of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we have only three characters. And, interestingly enough, the story is written so that our attention is focused not on Jesus, whose resurrection occurred earlier that very day, but directly on the two men – Cleopas and his friend, another follower of Jesus. Luke accomplishes this by putting the reader in the know, with Jesus, while the two disciples are in the dark. We are aware that Jesus has joined them on their journey and we are drawn into the suspense of waiting to find out just when they will figure it out.
It is a tale filled with irony. With some exasperation, they ask Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” The question assumes Jesus knows nothing, and yet, as usual, Jesus is the only one who knows everything.
This unique version of an appearance story is our answer to the central question, “How can people who have not seen the risen Lord come to know him?” People like us. Like many of the other miracle stories in the Bible, we may at one time or another have asked ourselves if the story of the resurrection is literally true. Did a dead Jesus really come back to life? But our story today suggests that it is not just the theology of the resurrection which requires our faithful attention, but also the theology of the cross.
When Cleopas says, “We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” he means that he saw Jesus’ death as the destruction of this hope, the failure of Jesus to deliver the goods. “We had hoped…” So much grief in those words, so much sadness. We’re told that they don’t know they’re talking to Jesus and that Jesus delays this knowledge until later in the story. For now, Jesus just chooses to walk with them, to journey with them, and to listen to them. That’s the kind of God we have – a God who listens to us, who longs to be in relationship with us, who wants to hear from us about our dashed hopes, our foiled dreams. Jesus doesn’t rush in to correct or to chide. Explanation is not the first thing they need. Companionship and the intimate act of listening is what Jesus first provides.
Cleopas was not alone in his brooding over the death of Christ. It was difficult for the early Christians to deal with the reality of the suffering of Jesus. It was extremely hard for them to accept the shocking idea that their Savior had died in circumstances of painful humiliation. Reliefs and catacomb paintings, which are a mirror of ordinary Christian thinking of those times, conspicuously refrain from depicting his suffering, preferring instead to stress his power as the divine savior. The crucifixion is rarely depicted at all prior to the fourth century. Nobody wanted to think about the death of Jesus. It seemed like defeat.
When Jesus does start to speak, he reminds the two disciples that they were failing to see that the suffering of the Messiah is the inauguration of the Kingdom. The cross itself is the fulfillment of the kingdom promise. All of the elements typically associated with the Kingdom of God are present: There on the cross is the model of grace who articulates his love for his enemies. There is the brother who prays for those who have hurt him. There is the savior who offers eternal life to a criminal crucified and dying beside him. There is the son who plans for the care of his mother. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the Kingdom, nor is it even the path to the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom come.
What if Jesus had died a normal death and then been raised and ascended into heaven? Let’s say he had a heart attack, or drowned in a boating accident. Let’s say he was then buried and his body disappeared from the tomb three days later. Would that hold the same meaning for us? I don’t think so. Not for me. Jesus actually raised others from the dead during the time of his ministry on earth. The power to accomplish resurrection is not enough.
The Son of Man, in making himself man, sinks to the depths of our human misery. He had to know of the times when we despair of ourselves, of our God, of everything. He had to be one with us in our sin. Jesus was guilty when he died. He was not a substitute, he was the same as we. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Me! Not the people, not the disciples, not the rest of this miserable world, but me! This was the cry of a man crushed by the gravity of sin. He made our sins his sins; he himself became guilty. Before his death, he knew hell on earth – a life deprived of the love of God because of sin.
Quite a journey Jesus was on when he lived on this earth. Quite a journey we are on today, living in the throes of a pandemic. Social isolation means something different to each one of us. My particular journey these days contains some elements that I’m not crazy about. As most of you know, my mother died ten days ago. It isn’t the fact of her death that’s so painful for me. She had a difficult time over the last year and her health was deteriorating. She hated that I needed to care for her in so many of the ways that she wished to care for herself. She wanted her independence back, she wanted to do for herself and that just was not going to happen.
Some of what she prayed for did happen. She felt strongly that she did not want to die at home. She feared it would be gruesome or difficult and she did not want us to witness that. On the other hand, she hated being in the hospital, so what would be the alternative? Well I’ll tell you what she did. On Friday night, April 17, she was having difficulty swallowing at dinner. She had this feeling that something was caught in her throat. By 9:30 her breathing was somewhat labored. By 10:30 the ambulance I called had collected her and was pulling out of the driveway. She had walked from her room to the dining room on her own steam. She was lucid when she left, conversing with the EMTs. I expected that I would be picking her up in the morning. By 11:15, only 45 minutes later, the ER doctor called to inform me that they would be abiding by her DNR order and asked my permission to administer morphine to make her comfortable, saying things didn’t look good. Before midnight she was dead.
So she didn’t die at home. Her passing was relatively quick and painless. When we opened a letter the following morning -- which we long knew was to be read in the event of her death -- she reminded us that she was with my father in heaven and he was as handsome as ever!
My road to Emmaus is not littered with anger or great sorrow because of my mother’s death. What is difficult, what is upsetting is that I have a brother in Michigan, a sister in Connecticut and another sister in South Africa. What I would give to share my journey with them now, in person, not on a screen or over the phone. Yesterday, my daughter Nicole and her fiancé, Jamison were to be married. Of course those plans were long ago cancelled. How I’d like my journey to include a celebration of their commitment to be together. But we don’t know when that will happen either.
We all got something. Something on our journey that is hard, sad, disappointing, or scary. Today’s gospel lesson is a good reminder that Jesus is always walking with us, whether we recognize him or not.
How are we to be sure of the risen Lord today? Cleopas and his friend walked for miles down the road to Emmaus with Jesus and never recognized him. They finally see Jesus for who he truly is at the exact moment that he broke bread in the sharing of a meal when their journey was over. That is always a place where we can find the Kingdom of God today -- in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ, which grants us total forgiveness when we share it with each other in communion.
Jesus’ actions in our story today set the pattern for the church. First, there is the teaching, and then there is the eating. The opening up of the scriptures and the breaking of the bread. The Word and the Sacrament, on the Lord’s Day, in the presence of Christ. The preaching of the Gospel, the good news of salvation. Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. Today, as on every Sunday, Jesus is among us, walking with us, joining us on our journey, opening the Scriptures and breaking the bread. Emmaus happens every Sunday. Amen.