What Things (5/7/17)
Welcome to the congregation, Lauren Nicole!
On Sunday, May 7th, we celebrated the sacrament of baptism at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church. In that sacrament, we affirm that we are all baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we believe that the resurrection is a real and present event. That's difficult to understand. On Sunday we examined the story of the appearance of the risen Christ to two disciples who were walking along the road to Emmaus, and how we might understand the resurrection in the present, too.
Good morning. I want to tell you a funny story, but first I want to ask you, by a show of hands, how many of you watched the Penguins’ game last night? That was a tough one. I know that a lot of you are big sports fans, but not as many people are into hockey. For those of you who don’t know, there was a very big playoff game on Wednesday, too, and the Penguins won.
I’m a pretty big Penguins fan. I have an official jersey, with the name and the number of one of the players on the back—it’s #71, Yevgeni Malkin. These jerseys are expensive. Mine cost $170. Normally, I’m not willing to spend that kind of money on team merchandise. It’s too much! But I’ve always wanted one. It was a couple weeks after I was ordained and maybe a week or two before my birthday, so I set aside the guilt I felt over spending that money on a stupid hockey jersey, and I splurged. I imagine that a few of you have felt this same guilt; maybe one of your kids or grandkids asked for one of these jerseys for a birthday or Christmas. The thing is, when you’re wearing an authentic team jersey, other fans know that you’re wearing the real thing.
So, on Wednesday I wore my Penguins’ jersey to church. A salesman came to the church that afternoon to drop off some information. He had a mild Canadian accent. He noticed my jersey and asked me, “Where are you watching the game tonight, eh?”
I said, “What game?”
We both had a good laugh. He has a hockey fan. He knew that I was a hockey fan, too, and he knew that I was playing dumb. It was funny, because we were both in on the joke.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, two of Jesus’ followers are walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The risen Christ appears along the road with them, but they don’t recognize him. When Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, one of them responds, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
It’s like they’re saying to Jesus, “Dude, how could you NOT know what just happened in Jerusalem?” They’re incredulous. They can’t believe what they just heard. Then Jesus asks, “What things?” I don’t know about you, but I think it’s kinda funny. This is Jesus! Of course he knows what just happened in Jerusalem!
Maybe I shouldn’t laugh. These followers of Jesus are in pain. They’re in so much pain they don’t realize they’re speaking with the risen Christ. But this is a familiar story—lots of disciples fail to recognize the risen Christ in their midst. Perhaps we fail to recognize the risen Christ in our midst, too. For too many of us, the resurrection is something that happened only in the past. We like to tell other people that Jesus will always be there in the midst of pain and loss, but again, I’m not sure we know what that means or what it looks like.
In this story, Jesus is literally walking with these disciples in the midst of their pain and loss and fear. On the surface, Jesus’ question, “What things?” may sound dumb, but it’s actually really smart:
Jesus gets them to articulate what they experienced. Yet, the question “what things?” leads the disciples to describe the things, which they have to do—to name the hurt. To name the fear. To name the doubt. And then Jesus picks it up from there and takes it home.
Jesus can only take away their pain and fear after they have acknowledged it. What’s more, by giving these disciples the space to name their hurt, their fear, and their doubt, Jesus affirms their suffering. Jesus says that their pain is real and it matters. He doesn’t minimize their loss, he listens. He allows them space to name exactly what they’re going through. He listens.
It strikes me that this is the exact opposite of what happens when someone dies. I could give you a whole dissertation on what NOT to say at a funeral home, or how NOT to respond when a friend tells you they have cancer, but not now. Suffice it to say that Jesus didn’t tell these two disciples, “He’s in a better place.”
The truth is, sometimes we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to say when a friend calls and says, “I got the results of the biopsy; it’s cancer.” We don’t know what to say to the middle-aged woman whose son died from a heroin overdose. We want to take away the fear or the grief or the pain, but we can’t. Yes, her son might be in a better place, but she isn’t. And to tell her that her son is in a better place is another way of saying, “you pain isn’t that important.” It minimizes her loss. Yes, your friend’s cancer might be in God’s hands, but that doesn’t take away her fear. There are no perfect words. Trying to say the right thing might make the pain or the fear worse. Or maybe we don’t say anything at all, because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Those are bad options. Yet we are called to minister to those who are afraid and comfort those who mourn.
At the same time, we are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are called to go out and make disciples. We are commanded to reach out to the lost and the least among us. We are commanded to love one another as God loves us. But we don’t do a very good job of engaging with the people outside of our walls: those who have stopped coming to church and those who have never been. And there too, we don’t know what to say, we don’t know the right words. So how do we do this? How do we square this circle?
Last Sunday I said that it’s hard to explain the resurrection, and it’s even harder to describe it as a real and present event. So, maybe we need to look outside of our walls for a model of what the resurrection looks like in our world right now. I think an obvious example can be found in 12-step groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
In AA meetings or NA meetings, members begin by admitting their brokenness. They name their addiction before the whole group, they don’t hide from it, and they turn their lives over to a higher power. For most, that higher power is God. And at those meetings they share stories of their addictions, and the pain that they have caused through their dependence on drugs or alcohol. There’s no judgment and nobody offers easy solutions.
When an addict shares his or her testimony at a meeting, it begins like this: “Hi, my name is Bob and I’m an alcoholic.” The other members of the meeting would respond by saying, “Hi, Bob.” In that exchange, everyone in the room acknowledges that they are the same, they are connected to one another in a fundamental way.
It seems to me that recovery meetings are like that moment along the road to Emmaus. Sure, Jesus asks the two disciples the dumb question: “What things?” But that dumb questions leads to the disciples sharing their fear and pain. And it lets the disciples control their story. It’s like saying, “So, Bob, what brings you to this AA meeting?” Well, duh! Bob’s there because he’s an alcoholic. And because everyone at that meeting is also an alcoholic, Bob can share his story without the fear of judgment. And through that, the healing can begin. Through that, the people at that meeting can move forward on the road to wholeness, like the disciples, on the road to Emmaus. And as they remain on that road to recovery, they live changed lives; they participate in the resurrection, in the present.
The truth is, when we meet people outside of these walls, people who no longer come to worship, as well as those who have never been to worship, we don’t need to offer the perfect words. We already have the Word made flesh. We don’t have to be perfect or know what to say. No. We have to be Christ-like. We have to invite people to share their own stories. We have to listen.
Before we do this, a little bit of practice might be in order. Our lesson this morning from the Book of Acts tells us that in the earliest Christian communities, “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” (2:44-45). Now if this were a stewardship sermon, I might be asking you when you were planning to auction off your stuff and give the money to the church—but that’s not today’s sermon. For now, maybe we could consider sharing more of one another’s burdens.
One of the things that most upsets me, as a pastor, is finding out that one of our members was in the hospital—after that person is already home! I cannot listen to your pain and sit with you in those dark places if I don’t know you’re suffering. And neither can the other members of this congregation. Yet I also know that many people will say the wrong thing. I understand that sometimes you want to control your own story—sometimes there are good reasons for telling your story to only a select group of friends and loved ones.
So, we all have to find that balance point. We have to share our deepest experiences with one another. We have to listen. We have to do this because it’s what we’re called to do. It’s also great practice for how we relate to the world outside of these walls. Let’s work together to create that space and let’s practice sharing Christ’s love more fully for each and every one of us in this place. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world, the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!