On The Road Again (Luke 24:13-35)

More than the story of Thomas, I believe the “Road to Emmaus” story to be the most important and meaningful witness of Jesus after the resurrection.  For me, his appearances by the tomb or in the upper room can’t hold a candle to this simple story of three people walking down a country road.  And that’s your first clue why this story speaks so clearly to me:  it resonates with my life.  I’ve never had a quasi-supernatural experience with someone I thought was dead and was now alive.  That’s certainly never occurred to me in the hours after that someone’s death in a graveyard, by the very spot where they were buried.  I’ve also never had a deceased person appear to me in while waiting in a locked room.

However, I’ll tell you what has happened.  I’ve walked many a mile on long dusty roads in Randolph County, between little villages in West Africa, and all over Armenia.  A couple of people, just talking, as you do, about life, death, and everything in between.  Then you pass a village, a train stop, a gas station, and someone joins the conversation. You may be riding the night train between Frankfurt and Paris in an empty car.  Then the stranger sitting at the next table speaks.   In a taxi, somewhere in the middle of Paris, Mary and Richard climb in.  In my halting French and his best English, a story is shared between the taxi driver and the two of us.  We’re going to Ireland to preach.  The driver seeks prayers because he is separated from his family. He is from Togo.  We are all in Paris.  I have walked through his village.  This story is real, to me, because I lived this story.  I can taste and smell the road to Emmaus.  If you take nothing else away this morning, I want you to hold onto this:  Christ comes alongside us and we are largely unaware.  Christ comes alive in conversations.  The conversations you least expect to be Holy can be gifts from almighty God.

We need to remember, as we did last week, the events described in this passage occur on the day of resurrection; Easter Sunday.  We’ve moved on three Sundays.  What we’re reading, these stories, are still the events of that day.  All of this was happening at the same time; a rapid succession of events.

Two people are leaving Jerusalem and returning to their home in Emmaus.  Clearly, it had been a long weekend.  It’s a distance of about 7 miles (60 stadia) from the city limits of Jerusalem to this small village.  Who were they?  Traditional depictions in art will show them as two men.  It may have been two guys or it may have been a man and a woman.  One of them was definitely named, “Cleopas”.  That’s a guys’ name.  We’re told they were disciples and they seem to be pretty close to the inner circle.  But it’s not clear how Luke is using the word “disciple” here.  The remaining 11 were supposedly holed up in the upper room waiting further instructions and living in fear.  Were these two disciples in the larger, generic sense; people who just followed Jesus from afar?  I’m not sure about that either.

There’s a decent stream of scholarship and pretty good evidence to say Cleopas was Mary’s brother in law.  Yes, that would be Joseph’s brother.  So, that would make him, Jesus’ Uncle.  This is a man and woman, walking home from watching their nephew die, and supporting his sister in law.  This is Jesus’ aunt and uncle. This is family.  These are his blood kin.  These disciples were family.  Again, this was his aunt and uncle. These people knew him from the time he was born in Bethlehem.  It the midst of everything that’s going on (his mother is with the disciples and Mary Magdalene) and wants to make sure the rest of his family is alright.  It doesn’t get any more basic than this:  caring for your family is an important part of life and death.

Jesus plays a little dumb.  “So what’s going on?” Jesus asks.  This has got to be one of my favorite interactions in the whole of Scripture.  It’s one of those utterly human moments where life shines through.

“What are you talking about as you walk along?”  How did Jesus keep a straight face?

“They stopped their faces downcast.”  Jesus’ uncle, Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

Have you been living under a rock man?  Don’t you read the paper?  Don’t you need check your Facebook feed?  How can you be so out of the loop?

Did they get it?  Do we get it?  All they knew to say was to parrot back the news of the past few days.  How about the big picture?  Yeah the body was gone, but did they get that meant the “resurrection”?

Resurrection is a deceptively simple idea.  With (what we think of as) two thousand years of 20/20 hindsight, we believe we’ve got it.  We believe we understand the mystery of Easter and what proclaim each time we take Holy Communion.  Christ is died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again:  Got It! Maybe not.

Remember, I said “deceptively” simple.  Things that look incredibly simple can be unbelievably complex and require serious explanation.  Simple, everyday things are easy to take for granted.

Take a toilet, for example.  Everyone knows how a toilet works.  Certainly most people think they do.  Don’t you?  Do you even know the general principle that governs its operations?  It turns out most people don’t.

The most popular flush toilet in North America is the siphoning toilet.  Its most important components are a tank, a bowl, and a trapway.  The trapway is usually S or U shaped and curves up higher than the outlet of the bowl before descending into a drainpipe that feeds the sewer.  The tank is initially full of water. 

 When the toilet is flushed, the water flows from the tank quickly into the bowl, raising the water level above the highest curve in the trapway.  This purges the trapway of air, filling it with water.  As soon as the trapway fills, the magic occurs:  A siphon effect is created that sucks the water out of the bowl and sends it through the trapway down the drain. The siphon action stops when the water level in the bowl is lower than the first bend of the trapway, allowing air to interrupt the process.  Once the water in the bowl has been siphoned away, water is pumped back for next time.  Is it simple?  It’s simple enough for me to describe in a paragraph but not so simple that everyone understands it. *

That’s how a toilet flushes.  We’re talking about the resurrection of the dead and its impact on eternal life as the defining moment of western civilization.  That’s a huge topic for a human brain to wrap the medulla oblongata around.  It’s elegant, it appears simple, any country preacher can talk about it for hours and hours,  and I can describe it a paragraph, but like a flushing toilet, it’s not so simple that everyone can understand it (or even wants to).

It needs some context, opening up, and some churning of the ideas.  This is what Jesus does with his aunt and uncle.  Jesus flushes out the idea.  We go through life with our coffee makers, toasters, and microwave ovens, computers and countless other objects with this kind of attitude:  I don’t care how they work, as long as they work.  I don’t want to know how my toilet works; I just want to know it does the job.  Jesus is not like your toilet.

Jesus comes along side us and says, it’s not enough to say, “I know Jesus has saved me, I know I’m saved, free from sin, stain, and all inequity.  I don’t know how it happened.  I don’t care how it happened. I got a warranty card I will redeem in Heaven.”

That’s not how this works.  In Luke’s story Jesus, “interpreted for them the things written about him in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets.”  Jesus wants us to know what’s going on, how our faith works, what salvation means in this world, and in the next.  We have a role to play in actively engaging with our resurrection story.  Too many of us want to live at arm’s length from the story Jesus is trying to tell.  We turn up the volume, walk away, or simply ignore the man walking beside us. We are too busy; we say these things are too much for us to know.  They are not?

When he’s gone, did you notice what Jesus’ aunt and uncle said?  “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scripture to us?”

You’re supposed to have holy heartburn.  That’s how you know this is real.  That’s how you know Christ has been close.  Don’t reach for the Nexium or Tums.  You’ve been going deeper, listening, and conversing with the risen Christ.  Let your heart burn.  It’s how you know you’re alive.

* Sloman, Steven A. The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead, 2017. 7-8.

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Presence with God

Presence
It’s time to slow down. Breathe deep.
Keep your eyes open. Try to recognize that God is present.
God is here. God is present to us. God is present in all we do.
Where you go, the people you see, the words you use, the interactions;
God is present.  Are we able to make God’s presence a greater reality?

Let Go
We are holding on to the wrong things. Our hands are full of disabling emotions.
Inside our heart, we’ve stored fear, prejudices, and uncertainties.
Will we be able to see God’s presence until we let go? No, we won’t.
Now is the time to hand the broken fibers of our humanity into God’s faithful care.
Allow God to begin weaving a new life tapestry.
God is present.  Are we able to pray for freedom in God’s presence?

Awareness
We do not live as if we are fully aware of God’s love.
Are we aware that God loves us unconditionally?
God loves us for who we are, We know this.
May we tell God who we are and what we feel?
We speak to God openly and honestly.
God is present.  Are we aware of how unconditionally God loves and prays for us?

Prayer

Gracious God,

We thank you for this moment of sanctuary. We know you are present in our lives. I pray that today, we may let go of those thing which limit our awareness of your presence. Help us to be fully aware of your unconditional love. Remind us that your unconditional love extends beyond our self imposed limits on loving others.

Amen

We Are So Lucky God Isn’t Fair

I confess.  I am guilty of expecting, wanting, and demanding fairness from God.  I’m lucky I’ve never received it.  A fair God would not be as willing to tolerate some of the things I say and do.  Fairness, when meted out from above, would lead to a capricious sense of unease among those who worshiped such a God.  As much as I want God to be fair; fairness scares me to death.

Fairness is a human construct.  The late political philosopher and theorist John Rawls taught that all members of a society should believe their society is fair.  Fairness is a collective, created belief we hold in common.  Fairness is the basis of our understanding of justice.  Despite the rampant inequalities which lead to injustices, our ideas of fairness should eventually move us toward justice.  For Rawls, justice is fairness, a practical model in which utilitarian principles could be employed to society’s benefit.

Here’s where things get dangerous.  Christians begin using artificial constructions (like Rawls’ notion of fairness) and apply these same criteria to God.  We impose our idea of fairness onto our belief in God.  In the quest to create fair societies, laws, and cultures; we have added God to the list of things which must be deemed “just” and “fair”.   When God becomes one more subject of which fairness is to be demanded, we create a new God.  The new, “fair” God is malicious and erratic.  “Fairness” from this God means a heavenly justification of suffering, a divine imprimatur on every act of cruelty, and explaining every exploitative act as a “fair” blessing.   Does this God look familiar to anyone?

What we see as a desire for “fairness” from God is an ambition to create a “fair” God is our own image.  We want a God that is as arbitrary, inhumane, and as fundamentally flawed as ourselves.  God isn’t fickle, volatile, and unfair; we are.  The fairness we believe God lacks is the unfairness we refuse to recognize in ourselves.

God’s love is not a utilitarian idea.  When looking at the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Grace, the ultimate free gift, excludes no one.  Utilitarian principles always leave someone out; you help lots of people, but not everyone.  Grace isn’t fair.  There will be an unfair perspective or an aggrieved party.   It wasn’t fair that Jesus died.  God’s idea of fairness isn’t like our own.   I’m not saying, “God’s plans are unknowable” or “God’s ways are mysterious”.  No, I’m saying God isn’t fair.  We don’t want God to be fair.  We couldn’t live with that level of fairness.

Pastoral Care with Jesus and Seneca

Nero and Seneca

Reading Seneca’s Moral Epistles* I see a model for pastoral care which echoes Jesus’ own encounters with those coming to terms with the impact of his death and resurrection.  On Easter Sunday, death and grief are tangible realities.  Even today, when diagnoses such as “stage iv cancer” are a regular occurrence; friends and neighbors are sometimes too willing to pronounce death sentences on each other.  Instead of acknowledging death as a reality to be faced, we give death a power it does not deserve.  By empowering death and feeding the fears sown by mortality, we prevent those facing a serious illness from embracing life and acknowledging death.

Seneca was one of the great Stoic philosophers of the early Roman Empire.  In his Moral Epistles, he wrote, “Consider the vastness of time’s expanse; include the universe too; then compare what we call human life with this endlessness.”  In the grand scheme of things, human life is a small part of the universe’s splendor.  Yet, we are still part of endlessness of the universe.  We are a part of time’s vast expanse.  There’s something beyond our accepted understandings of time and space.  That’s a resurrection message. Christians do not use the phrase “death sentence” in the conventional, ethical, or legal parlance.  There are no death sentences in the Christian tradition.  Death is the penultimate reality.  Courts deal in death sentences.  Doctors with a poor beside manner talk about death sentences.  There are no death sentences in the Kingdom of God.

He goes on to say, “How much we pray for death, strength, fear before death comes! How much of life is spent ignorant and inexperienced! Half of it is spent in sleep.  Add to this our work, grief, dangers, and then you will know that even in the longest life the part that is truly lived is the least.”   Seneca has a way of getting to the point.  As Jesus notes in Matthew 6, people pray in different ways for a variety of reasons.  Seneca and Jesus both call into question the content of our prayers and lives.  Our prayers are all over the map, we sleepwalk through life, and eventually we realize the lives we’ve led are fairly short.  Real life happens between the naps, misplaced petitions to God, and ignorant choices.  Our Emmaus moments are those instances where Christ ducks alongside us and reminds us that resurrection is a contextual reality we can embrace.

Resurrection life is not what Seneca describes.  Seneca says people can do better than half-lived lives.  Who wants a half-lived life?  Resurrection is life what Jesus embodies on the road to Emmaus.  He listens to his grieving friends.  He doesn’t need to be the most knowledgeable about grief, cancer, or people who’ve lost loved ones to crucifixions.  He does not judge their grief or tell them what his friend who had a disease years ago went through or horror stories about chemotherapy, to get over it, or move on from the pain.   When Jesus does speak, he tells the story of God’s love from scripture.  If you can’t tell someone God loves them, can you say “I love you?”

Jesus is present.  Jesus prays.  Can you be present?  Can you pray?

Seneca Moral Epistles 99.10-11

It’s About How We View God

Totems and Statues of Various Gods and Goddesses, Sigmund Freud’s Desk, London

What’s wrong with us? That’s the question on my mind as the Judicial Council begins to meet this week. Why can’t we fix this and move on? How did we get to the point where these “issues” became issues? We are where we are. There are far more important topics we, as a church, should be addressing. War is coming to northeast Asia and Russia’s growing threats to liberal democracy are the first which come to mind. I don’t know what the United Methodist Church can do about thermonuclear war but that’s far more important to humanity than removing (or even considering the removal of) Bishop Karen Oliveto.

In one way we are distracted by a sense of our own self-importance. We believe our attempts to resolve ancient debates between scripture and Christian doctrine matter more than they actually do. We are in love with the perpetual crises which are keeping the denomination on life support. These issues matter to us and we are a fairly small audience at the moment. Focused inward, we get to justify our ignorance of the world around us. The world is concerned about Marine Le Pen (denier of the Vichy regime’s role in the Holocaust), a government shutdown, and a nuclear war in Korea at the moment. Methodism’s ongoing battles aren’t figuring in large in global affairs. I worry the world has moved on and is now in far too dangerous a place for us to be leisurely considering human sexuality as if it’s not one minute to midnight.  We don’t have time for this.

We live in a world where gay and lesbian people, Christians, atheists, believers, and non believers must coexist.  I don’t mean the bumper sticker on the back of a Subaru kind of coexistence.  The world is far too dangerous a place to exclude anyone qualified from the church’s ministry.  Our doors should never be closed.   We need all the help we can get. Are United Methodists going to be the only denomination still debating the place of lesbian and gay persons in the church if Kim Jong-un obliterates Seoul? At this rate, I’d say so. That, I’m afraid, will make us look behind the humanitarian and theological curve.

To some observers, United Methodism’s problems are systemic: there is disrespect for the Book of Discipline, church tradition, Episcopal authority, and scripture itself. I see the basis of these critiques and understand them. Yet, I don’t think they point to the real problem. Methodists, on either side of the human sexuality debate, have vastly different ideas of God. Apart from dogma, the Discipline, or even Wesleyan tradition; there is a fundamental divide among how United Methodists view God.

Is God love? Do we say God is love and when we say God is love do we mean it or are we lying to ourselves and others? Do we believe in a loving God? That’s the line. Is it possible to believe that God loves her creations and then condemns them for being who she created? I argue no. So yes, I will deny the Bible’s authority on this issue.  However, I will not question the evidence of God’s love I see before my eyes.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Richard’s Guide To Apocalyptic Pastoral Care

It is hard not to develop an apocalyptic world view after a major hurricane, extensive property damage, the rise of hunger and unemployment in your small community, and people dying. Winter was hard and spring doesn’t seem to be any easier. The cancer diagnoses and the words “stage iv” keep being bandied about like new players for the Red Sox or Yankees. My family, the congregation I serve, is dealing with one death after another. I am tired. The grieving seems endless. Resurrection is an idea we’ve only had the opportunity to discuss in worship between funerals and discussing new diagnoses.   This isn’t me being glib.  I’m just looking at the calendar.  This Easter (and the week after) God seems to have gone on vacation.   If you see Her, tell Her to call.

Welcome to Richard’s guide to apocalyptic pastoral care.  What do I do?  I listen more than I speak. I don’t know what to say. I never did really, isn’t that what they teach you in pastoral care. Just listen, be present. When I do stand up and turn to the service of death and resurrection, I’ve read the opening “Gathering and Greeting” so many times now, I swear the congregation is mouthing the words along with me. Our death rituals have become predictable, set piece dramas. No one is looking for the twist at the end. I say Sunday is coming. I quote Tony Campolo. I receive blank stares. My community wants to tell me what their oncologist said, they don’t want to know Tony Campolo’s clichés. I listen. Then I pray. We pray. No one turns down prayer.

1. Never go visiting on an empty stomach. Not because you’re expecting to be fed but you’re not yourself if you’re hungry. (See Snickers commercials.)

2. Take some tissues. Be prepared to cry.

3. Keep your hands free to hug.

4. Practice saying the words, “I don’t know”. Use them. Don’t make stuff up.

5. Silence is better than religious gibberish.

6. When I need to say something, I sometimes ask “what would my dad say?”

7. Let others speak.

8. Remember John Donne: Death Be Not Proud

9. You’re not there to fix God’s role in human mortality. No fixing aloud.  Don’t be Job’s friends.

10. Pray before you leave.  Put words to your feelings.

5 Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said (and Why)


1. Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what your will drink, or about your body, or your will wear. (I like to worry. I worry all the time. I worry about what’s for dinner though it’s never an issue. I worry about being overweight. I worry about sweet tea.) Matthew 6:25

2. Do not judge, so you that you may not be judged. (I judge people. I judge their grammar, behavior, destructive lifestyles, and things that have no bearing on anything. I judge. I shouldn’t but I do. I need to pray more and judge less. Part of my humanity is wrapped up in judging. I wish you’d never said this.) Matthew 7:1

3. Do not worry about tomorrow. (I worry about tomorrow sometimes more than today. I’ve borrowed so much trouble I’m in debt to the First National Bank of Next Week.) Matthew 6:34

4. Anyone who divorces is wife and marries commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (I divorced my first wife and married another. My wife did the same thing. Jesus, this seems over the top harsh. I love my wife. We’re not adulterers. I wish you hadn’t said this.  Honestly, it hurts; especially considering how much work for the church she does too.) Luke 16:18

5. Stand up, take your mat, and walk. (Only you Jesus, can say these words. Now every pull yourself up by their bootstraps self-help guru thinks all you have to do fix poverty/illness is to tell the poor to stand up and walk. They don’t realize being Jesus also had something do with the man at the pool being healed.) Luke 5:9

–Richard Bryant