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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Do We Recognize Jesus - 04/30/2017

When I was a wee girl, I had a few rather fantastic ideas about how things work in the world.

For instance, I thought everybody's dad had to take a turn at being president of the United States and so when I learned that you had to be 35 to be president I deduced that when my dad turned 35, it would be his turn. I didn't occur to me that there would be many other 35-year-old dads in 1973, but I did wonder how much I would miss him when he moved to Washington, D.C., for his turn to be president. I supposed he would come back when he turned 36. It all seemed well thought out and rather logical at the time.

I also thought that the child actor Shirley Temple was really my mother and she was keeping it secret. I thought trees moved around the land, but humans didn't live long enough to see them take even a single step. And I worried that when Jesus came back – like the priests and my family said he would – we wouldn't recognize him and this world would just kill him all over again.

These ideas and visions of how the world worked were the product of my wee-girl perspective, which at that time was short on experience and long on imagination.  I have grown out of a lot of those childhood ideas of how the world works, although I have to say the jury is still out on the tree thing. And ... I think that although I was little and hadn't experienced much yet, I was right on the money about whether we'd recognize Jesus if he came among us again.

Our story about this little jaunt to Emmaus and back is a perfect example of how that can happen. These two disciples on the road are caught up in their perspectives – their points of view. And they're stumbling about trying to understand the events of the last few days, events which have challenged everything they thought they knew about Jesus and who he was and what that meant to Israel … so much so that the very man they are talking about is unrecognizable to them when he joins them on the road.

And I don't think we can really fault them too much for not being able to see Jesus right in front of them. The disciples were deeply steeped in the idea that a prophet would rise up like a warrior and redeem Israel. Moses had pointed to that eventuality when he said … “God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me.”

The Gospel of Luke mentions this expectation repeatedly, and it comes on pretty good authority. It is the point of view of Zachariah who at the naming of John the Baptist proclaims, “Blessed be the God of Israel … for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” (1:68-69).  It's the understanding of Simeon and Anna at the temple when Jesus is presented. Simeon is described as someone “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” (2:25) Anna witnesses Jesus being presented and begins to “praise God and speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (2:38) Joseph of Armithea is described as a good and righteous man who was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” (23:51) Our disciples are among preachers, priests, wise and respected elders, teachers and esteemed colleagues who held a particular vision of what this redemption of Israel would look like, how this Messiah, this Jesus who they thought was “the One,” would behave and bring about this redemption.

He would be a mighty warrior who would defeat those in power and replace them and their powerful institutions with the fully revealed and unstoppable Kingdom of God.

But that's not what's happened. Jesus died on that cross and all the disciples are left with is “what they had hoped.” They cannot see beyond their disappointment and confusion, beyond their need to grieve the loss of “what they had hoped.” Is it any wonder they dismissed what the women said when they returned from the empty tomb? Is it really so surprising they don't recognize Jesus when he joins them on the way to Emmaus?

Everything they thought they knew, everything they thought they were hoping for was crucified with Jesus on that cross and they are reeling in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable introduction to a new reality.

I think it is right there in that space that we can really connect with what these disciples are feeling. I would imagine that all of us here can think of – or are even in the midst of –  experiencing a time when everything you thought was sure and true seems to just fall apart.  And we encounter others who are having this kind of road to Emmaus experience too. A loved one gets ill and does not get better. A job or vocation you've always been drawn to seems full of glitches, politics and doubt. Your understanding of someone seems so clear one day is so muddy and mysterious the next. A family member loses a job. You pray to God for help and guidance, but the way God answers that prayer is not what you expected. And then we realize we are much like Jesus' disciples. We have come off the high of the procession into Jerusalem and all of its optimism and then – too quickly, too jarringly – we find ourselves confused at foot of the cross and running away from the empty tomb.

But there's another place in this story where we can really connect with these disciples, a place in which we may regain some firm footing and see what is around us more clearly. When Jesus catches up with these two disciples who don't recognize him, they aren't just walking down the road talking about how much life stinks. The word the gospel writer chooses to use for the talking they are engaged in goes much deeper than idle chit chat. It is more like deep discussion and examination of the events of the last three days. They are turning things over in their minds, looking at it from different angles, talking about the nuances. They are trying to figure out what these events mean. Even as they are lamenting the loss of what they had hoped, they are beginning to seek a new reality and their place in it.

They remind me of any number of us talking together after bible study or about why bad things happen to good people and visa versa. They might remind some of us of times we feel overwhelmed by systems of injustice and abuse in our world ... or what the heck it means to be followers of Jesus in this time and place. They might remind us of our own roads to Emmaus, confronted with the brokenness and pain of this world, and wondering where God is –  where  Jesus is  – in all of this anyway?

But it is in that dialogue, that examination of what happened in Jerusalem over those three days between the cross and the empty tomb … it is in that seeking and questioning and even doubting that the disciples become open to what Jesus then has to tell them  … “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

The old points of view and the visions and ideas of what they had hoped are broken down in order to make way for the new ideas, the new visions of hope. Jesus creates an unexpected place where God breaks in… new ground on which God begins to burn within the foolish and slow hearts of the disciples and us so we may recognize that Jesus is not dead.

I think maybe that is why Jesus commanded we eat together at this table. Becuae no matter what is blinding us,  we can recognize Jesus in the breaking and blessing of bread at a communal table. And from there we can start to comprehend the astounding hope that is contained in the stories of the empty tomb. We can begin to see that Jesus does accompany us in our vocations and jobs, that he has gone ahead and will meet us in our exhausted days of  parenting and care giving; he is there in the joys and challenges of our family gatherings. We begin to recognize him all around us in the people and circumstances of our communities, our nation, this whole beautiful and broken world we live in.

Some of you have heard this next story before in another sermon I preached for an ecumenical gathering last year. But it's a good story, so please pardon the repetition.

It's a story from when I was living on the south side of Chicago. My Chicago ministry site was on the north side, along with some family and friends. So, particularly during my middler year, I was on the bus and train a lot – four or more hours each week, so it just made sense to use it for reading time. But it wasn't just the books that instructed me, that made my foolish and slow heart burn as I made my way from one side of the loop to the other. The story of the Road to Emmaus reminds me of one of those times.

I was on the train, reading. I was sitting next to this young guy who was pretty decked out in expensive looking jeans and shoes and a sporty jacket of some kind. He was an animated guy and he kept making random comments about stuff to another young man sitting across from him who was also reading a book and seemed like he was working hard to be tolerant of his friend who kept interrupting his reading. And then this other man came into the car. He was clearly not in control of himself physically. I thought he was going to fall on top of somebody. He was stumbling and mumbling and trying to hold his pants up which were far too big for his emaciated frame. He appeared to be a very sick man, probably suffering from a brain disease of some kind. He asked me for money but I didn't have anything to give him. I told him I was sorry and he started laughing at me really loudly and unnaturally. It was alarming and frightening. He was completely unpredictable; I didn't know what he was going to do next. So I just prayed for the well-being of everyone on that train. As I looked down, I noticed the guy next to me was taking a box cutter out of his pocket of his fancy jeans.

I didn't have enough time to react fully to the fact that I was the one thing between the sick man and the box cutter before he moved away from us a little and asked someone else for money. The guy with the box cutter and the fancy jeans leaned across the train toward his friend and said something about cutting the guy … it was a little more flowery than that. And his friend calmly looked at him and said, “And what if he's Jesus Christ?”

What!? I was not expecting that.

Apparently the guy next to me as just as caught off guard by this question as I was. He slipped the box cutter back in his pocket and sat back in his seat. But in the meantime, the sick man made his way back to us. He was still acting unpredictably. I saw my neighbor reach back into his pocket, but this time he pulled out a couple of dollars and he gave them to the sick man. Immediately the situation was diffused. We pulled into the next stop and the sick man got off the train. At the next stop the two young men got up to leave. I caught eyes with the man with the fancy jeans and box cutter and said “thank you.” He nodded at me and left.

“And what if he is Jesus Christ?” What if he was? I was not expecting that public theology being acted out in front of me. But it happened and God broke in with a new point of view, this new hope, this news that Jesus is not dead. That our sin and even our deaths no longer hold power over us. Jesus goes with us and on ahead of us and we do catch glimpses on our way.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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