Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Today's Sermon was called - "We Walk Together"

I love my church - for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that they have taken several huge risks in invited me to teach and to preach there. I mean, how do they know I'm not going to say something completely heretical and off base? Like I said, it's a risk. I have been honored to preach there several times over the past two or three years. Today I had the chance to do so again.

The rest of this blog post is the manuscript for the sermon.
I hope you are able to find some word of encouragement and hope.
Here goes -

Today's Scripture passage is taken from Luke 24, verses13-19A.

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?’ 


On the morning of Thursday, June 18, 2015, I received a text from a friend, asking me how I was handling the news out of Charleston. I answered - “What news?” About the shooting in the church down there. I stopped texting her immediately, logged onto Google - and nearly fell to my knees. Nine people gunned down during a Wednesday night Bible study. Lord Jesus, have mercy. There is no place safe anymore, not even church. Four days later, on the following Monday, Mecklenburg Ministries, more commonly known as Meck Min, began a series of gatherings they called, “We Need to Talk.” The tragedy in Charleston served as clear proof that we needed to talk about race and hate and our responsibility to know our history and to work for justice. Those conversations were raw, engaging, disturbing, and long overdue. Not long after attending that first gathering, two dear friends decided that they wanted to do more than talk. They decided to walk and talk. They invited anyone who wished to join them to walk 100 miles here in Charlotte, getting to know each other, getting to know the city, getting to know what makes us tick, and trying to figure out what they could do to challenge the status quo in this beautiful, broken, separate, and profoundly unequal city. They called their new movement,“We Walk Together.” 

Following a tragedy of cosmic proportions, a brutal and unjust execution, the two men we just read about in Luke 24 set out on a walk of their own. They had watched their beloved leader die a horrific death. And later in this account, they explained to the Jesus they did not yet recognize, that a group of women had told them that they had seen angels, angels who proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. So not only was their leader dead and gone, but also they were dealing with the outlandish claim that he was alive again. My vivid imagination pictures them sitting across from each other at the table in that locked upper room, surrounded by other terrified followers of Jesus, and one of them raised his eyebrows and tipped his head toward the door. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, they decided to leave Jerusalem and make their way to Emmaus. I imagine that Cleopas said something like, “We need to talk as we walk together.”

It seems like a simple statement, like an ordinary thing. But I think that if we take a closer look at that simple and ordinary statement - we walk together - we will discover that it is far from simple and even farther from ordinary. 

First of all: Who is the “we”? In the Scripture reading for today, the “we” is Cleopas and his unnamed travel companion. That “we” was an offshoot of a larger “we” - the twelve disciples, the other companions of Christ, the women, the lepers who had been healed, and people like, Nicodemus, who was a member of the established religious elite. And that “we” was part of an even larger “we” - the rest of their religious community, their neighbors in the towns where they lived, all of them with the boot of their Roman occupiers on their necks. Which takes us out to another level of “we.” The occupying political and military forces and all they represented. Those two disciples on that road to Emmaus may not have seen it that way, but their “we” was far broader than they knew. 

Who is the “we” in our world? Look around you in the pews. We are the we. We gather here in the middle of the day in the middle of the week to be with others who also seek to know God better. This meager gathering connects to the larger “we” that makes up the body of Christ in the world. Our “we” also extends to the people we will encounter when we leave this place. The people in our families. The people in our extended faith community. The people with whom we work and interact on a regular basis. Our “we” goes beyond that as well. Our “we” includes the homeless people we will see lying on the sidewalk and occupying benches. It includes the people at homeless shelters and the ones unable to get there. Our “we” includes the people we serve at the Loaves and Fishes pantry. Our “we” includes the people to whom we are sending aid in Houston and Puerto Rico and Mexico. Our “we” includes people on the other side of the political aisle, and those who choose not to engage politically at all. Our “we” includes the athletes who kneel beside football fields and those who boo at them and threaten their livelihood. Our “we” includes white supremacists and those who stand against them. 

Despite all the pontificating to the contrary, there really is no us and them, we are all we. Just ask the rich and the poor people, the immigrant and the native born who are staring at water-logged, uninhabitable houses in Houston. Ask the people staring at the smoking hulls of their homes and businesses, recently consumed by wildfires in Northern California. Ask the millionaires in post-earthquake Mexico City whose children were trapped in collapsed schools right along with the children of their poor neighbors. Earthquakes and fires, hurricanes and droughts, illness and death - affect us all. We are all we.

Listen again to a portion of today’s Scripture, “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.” Seven miles is a long way to walk, and they had a long time to talk about all those things that had happened. What do you think was the pace at which they were walking that day? What do you imagine they talked about as they walked? “What do we do now? Where do we go? Can Peter keep this thing going? Can we feed more people? Should we even try? We weren’t doing it anyway. It was Jesus who did it all. I still can’t believe He is dead and gone. I thought this was only the beginning of his work in the world. What about all his talk of “the kingdom of God”? What next? What now?” 

If you were to set out from this gathering today, walking and talking for seven miles, what are some of the things that you would talk about? Would you talk about the shooting in Las Vegas and the senseless gun violence that plagues our nation? Would you talk about that young man from South Charlotte who committed suicide last week? What about the epidemic of drug use and abuse in our country? Would you talk about the fear mongering and political turmoil that have dominated our national conversations? Would you talk about someone near and dear to you who recently received a terrible diagnosis or is out of work - again? Would you talk about the refugee crisis in Sudan or Syria or Europe or right here in our own country? Once you start listing all the things that preoccupy you, all the things that preoccupy all of us, then seven miles doesn’t feel like too long a walk at all, does it? 

Walking seems like such an ordinary thing. That’s what Mary and Catherine thought when they began what is now nearly a two and a half year old walking adventure here in Charlotte. It’s easy to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Because walking easy - until it’s not. I know someone whose wife suffered an aneurysm that has resulted in her no longer being able to lift up one of her feet. She can lower her foot, but the muscles in her lower leg no longer respond to her brain’s message to lift that foot. Lift up one of your legs right now and flex your foot. Pull your toes up towards your knee. Such an ordinary act, but if your feet can no longer carry out what your brain is asking for, then walking is impossible. The ordinary becomes impossible. It is that recognition of the impossibility of forward movement, that moment when hope is lost, that hour when despair sets in - that is exactly when, where, and why we need to remember that we are all “we,” and we are on this journey together.

Nowadays people say things like, “We used to be able to talk to each other more easily. But now there is so much anger and animosity that ordinary conversation is impossible. They are so angry. They don’t listen to anybody. They refuse to hear our side of the story.” Have you ever heard anyone say that? Have you perhaps said that yourself? Us and them. Us versus them. Despite every effort to convince us that “they” are not “ like us,” that white and black, rich and poor, republican and democrat, gay and straight people, cannot live and serve and walk together, the truth is that YES, we can, because we are all “we.” They are us. And we walk this planet and this journey together.

So where exactly were Cleopas and his companion walking to that day? Some Bible scholars and archeologists say that there were a few towns within twenty miles of Jerusalem that could be where Emmaus was. Others say there were no towns in that area that went by that name. Frederick Buechner, the well known Presbyterian writer and preacher wrote, “Emmaus can be a trip to the movies just for the sake of seeing a movie or to a cocktail party just for the sake of the cocktails. Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to Church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred; that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had - ideas about love and freedom and justice  - have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends. Emmaus is where we go, where these two went, to try to forget about Jesus and the great failure of his life.” (The Road to Emmaus, page 85, The Magnificent Defeat) I suspect we can all relate to that. Sometimes we are compelled to turn off the news, turn away from the heartbreak, and head for our own private islands of Emmaus. We escape into shopping and food and alcohol. We escape into television and Hulu and Netflix. I confess that my escape of choice these days is seminary study and church committee meetings. The alternative, looking this world’s suffering people in their eyes, is often too much to bear. So we turn and walk away.

Cleopas and his friend turned and walked away from their downcast companions, embarking on one of the most painful walks of their lives. But hallelujah, they did not walk alone. In my earlier exploration of the “we” that traveled with them and the “we” that travels with us on our life journey, I intentionally left out the most important member of their little travel party: The travel guide. The One who created the road on which they walked, the One who had always been with them and always walked with them, the One who had, in fact, brought them thus far on the way. 

Cleopas and his friend had no idea that they were about to experience the truth of Matthew 18:20 first hand, for themselves. That’s where it says: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. There they were, the two of them, and there he was among them, the One whose loss they were lamenting and whose presence they were too blind to perceive. There he was, among them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Perhaps they were walking with their heads down and just didn’t bother to look up and see the face of their Risen Rabbi. But how is it that they didn’t recognize his voice? That we do not know. But what we do know is that they left Jerusalem and made their way towards a place the writer identified as Emmaus, and as they walked together on the afternoon of resurrection day, they were approached and accompanied by Jesus, the Risen Christ. 

Can we let that soak in for just a moment? That Emmanuel, God with us, the God who came to earth in human form, died and rose from the dead, appeared to them on the road and walked with them. Put yourself there on that road as the unnamed companion of Cleopas. You and Cleopas may not know it, but Jesus is with you. You and your neighbor there in the pew may not know it, you may not recognize it, you may not remember it, and you may not even believe it, but Jesus is present. Listening to your prayers and your cries for mercy. Listening to you as you recount your losses and your dashed hopes. 

Jesus turned their ordinary and mournful walk, their ordinary and simple meal, into the most extraordinary walk and meal of their lives. Their eyes opened. Their hearts burned. Their spirits rose. And then so did they - a few verses later, we read that they got up and returned to Jerusalem. How different do you think that return trip was from their earlier walk? They went back to the upper room, eager to tell their story, to share their experience with the risen Christ. But guess what? Christ had already shown up for and with Peter. The disciples were already talking about what God had done. These two went back to the upper room - back to the place of despair, the place of loss, the place of fear - but they went back with Jesus on their minds and on their lips - and they discovered that Jesus was already there. They had no answers, no solutions, and no plan for how they would endure the oppression of the Romans or how they would move forward as a community of faith - but they were going to walk that road together. 

Like them, we have no idea of how we will endure the oppression of fear and greed, anger and racism. We don’t know how we will stand up against injustice and inequity. We don’t know how we will bring an end to war or sexism or homophobia or any of the other “isms” and “phobias” that divide us. But here’s the thing: we walk together. We are learning, some of us for the first time, that we are all “we,” and we have to find ways to disrupt every narrative that tries to tell us anything different. We have to find ways to break down the barriers that have already been erected and prevent the building of border walls that are threatening to be erected between us and everyone else who is included in the “we” that Christ Jesus came to seek and to save. We walk together and we walk with Christ in our midst and in our hearts. We can leave this place and walk together in hope, in faith, and in joy. We can leave this place humming the tune of today’s first hymn, that song of Easter triumph. 

It’s a simple choice, an ordinary choice, and a life changing choice to walk together. Even if we don’t know where we are going - Wait, let me rephrase that - even though we don’t know where we are going or what we are going to do when we get there. We walk together. We don’t know what we can do or say to relieve the pain and suffering we encounter. We don’t know and we can’t possibly know. But we walk together. We don’t have the answers. We don’t even have clearly articulated questions. But we walk together. We don’t have enough power to shift the balance of power - but we have been given power from on high by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have enough money to build everyone a house or feed every one a meal. But we have the Bread of Life, the Risen and Living Lord, interceding for us beside the throne of grace. We have the God of the Universe on our side. And we have the Holy Spirit within us. 

Even as we reel with unspeakable sorrow after yet another mass shooting, yet another white supremacist march, another gang war, another bombing, another hurricane, let us go from the comfort of this place and walk back into the places of despair, darkness, and fear, with the good news of Christ’s resurrection. And if we pay attention, if we raise our eyes and look around, we may very well see glimpses of the Risen, Holy One. If we look up and listen up, we will see and hear stories of peacemaking in war torn places- and I hope that we will recognize Jesus in the company of the peacemakers in our midst. We will see ships, airplanes, and trucks filled with food and water destined for our desperate Puerto Rican neighbors - and I believe that we will recognize Jesus in the company of those being fed. We will hear about medical clinics being built at a time in our country’s history when access to medical care is being rescinded - and I pray that we will recognize Jesus in the company of those who are being healed. We will tutor students in our local schools - and I suspect that we will recognize Jesus in the company of those precious and precocious little ones. We will get involved with programs that provide housing, food, education, and sanctuary for immigrants in our midst - and I bet that we will recognize Jesus in the company of the desperate and the disenfranchised. We will discover that our previously dashed hopes are being undashed  - honestly, I’m not sure if there is such a word, but I’m going with it - undashed by the God of hope. Listen, my friends, I know and you know that we can’t do any of this alone. But we are not called to do this alone. We are called to be the people of God - together. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation - together - seeking and finding the risen Christ in the eyes and in the faces and in the company of all who desperately need to be reconciled with one another and with the One who gave us life. We have been called to walk together. And let us never forget that we walk together - and Jesus Christ our Risen and Triumphant Lord, walks with us. Amen.

Will you pray with me? Holy and Risen One, we come to you now thanking you for your  call on our lives, your call to walk this life journey together, not only together with those who sit near us in this sanctuary, but also with those who by all appearances live light years away from us. Lord, please help us to recognize that we are all part of the “we” you have created. We are called to walk each other home, literally home to places where we can sleep at night, home to welcoming and inclusive communities of faith, and most of all, home to you. As we cower in our own locked rooms and our locked homes, in our gated communities and behind our gated hearts, Lord, please open our eyes so that we can see you right here with us, even behind our locks and gates. Help us to see you in the eyes and faces of those who travel this road with us. Guide us, O thou great Jehovah, weary, fearful, and divided though we may be, along your path of peace. And we will be careful to give you the thanks and praise, the glory and the honor that you alone deserve. We ask all this, we plead for all of this in the name of the one who taught us to pray saying - (The Lord's prayer was recited here.)

As you leave this place, may you walk together with courage and hope. May you go from this place, knowing that, even when you feel lonely, afraid, and abandoned, Christ the Risen Lord walks with you. Go in peace.

Addendum - This movie scene was sent to me by a friend from long ago and far away. 
He is right - this scene touches on theme that is similar to what I tried to say in the final paragraph of my sermon. Thank you, my friend. Thank you very much. 

No comments: