I’m Just Sayin’…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  

On April 24, we began our work in the third part of that message, found in Matthew 7:1-6.  In addition, we considered Paul’s advice to the divided church in Rome delivered in Romans 14:9-19.  

 

As someone who spends most of my life either talking or listening, I’d like to come clean about one aspect of our English language that frustrates the heck out of me.

I’m just saying…

Have you heard that? I know you have. He says, “Man, if I had to sit through one more of those classes, I think I’d have smacked my head against the wall!” You say, “Um, you know that’s my uncle that teaches those classes, right?” And he says, “Oh, man, look – I’m just saying…”

National Public Radio host Scott Simon says this:Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coat

“I’m just saying,” puts a fire escape onto the end of a sentence. It lets you express a stern — even rude — opinion, but not really. You’re just saying. It invites the listener to discount what we’ve just heard, even as we’re reeling from it.

The Urban Dictionary website explains that the phrase makes it “possible to deliver a rude comment or burn and have it bounce off simply as an opinion disguised as an objective opinion, and who can argue with you over an opinion that you don’t apparently support.”[1]

You’ve seen it. You’ve said it, perhaps. You drop a verbal bomb and then just before it goes off, you think you can disarm it by simply stating, “Hey, I’m just saying…”

I’d like to ask you to try something with me this morning. I understand that folks who play for our team have been told, with good reason, to avoid ‘graven images’. I don’t want to incite you to idolatry at all. But I do want you to spend a moment and come up with an image in your mind. The only thing I’ll tell you is that you’re not allowed to use “Jesus” as your answer to this question.

If the church had a single face, if Christianity had a profile, who would it look like to you? If you had to describe the way that the church looked as a person, and you couldn’t use a picture of Jesus, whose picture would you use? Think about that for a moment.

I’m afraid that for too many people in the world, the church looks like this:angryChristian

I’m not sure why or how it happened, but I think that there are a lot of people who, if I asked them to describe for me what they imagine when they think of those who bear the name of Jesus, they picture an angry, judgmental, person who is screaming.

Now, I’m just saying, but… if this is what comes to mind when people contemplate the followers of the Prince of Peace, well, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

The Sermon on the Mount Fra Angelico, c. 1440

The Sermon on the Mount
Fra Angelico, c. 1440

We begin the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount today. If you’ve been here all year, you’ll remember that way back in chapter five, we talked about the perisson – the extraordinariness that marks the life of the disciple. Do you remember that? How often Jesus said, “Look, you learned it this way, but I’m telling you, you’ve got to go beyond that… Look past murder to anger; past adultery to lust; past not lying to being a person of absolute integrity… If you want to follow me, you’ve got to be willing be inwardly and totally transformed, not merely pick up a few new habits.

And then in chapter six we considered the call to true righteousness that Jesus set before his followers – the ways that we practice our prayer, our giving, and our fasting that transform us and make the world better for our neighbors.

As we come into the home stretch of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to consider how we who would follow Jesus are to relate to each other and to the world around us. Even as he tells his disciples that they are obliged to live lives that are different from those who surround them, the Lord says, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship does not afford us a point of vantage from which to attack others; we come to them with an unconditional offer of fellowship, with the single-mindedness of the love of Jesus.”[2] We are to approach each other from the stance of love and encouragement rather than judging or critique.

“Do not judge, or you, too, will be judged…” What is Jesus’ point here? It can’t be that he’s telling us to avoid making any kind of discerning remark or turning a blind eye to the faults of others. He’s not saying that we are not to evaluate the behaviors and strategies of those around us, and to seek to model healthier choices where appropriate. There are all kinds of places in the Sermon and in Gospels where he tells us to do exactly those things.

Censorship-Quotes-27What he is doing, I believe, is warning us against the sin of censoriousness. That’s not a word that we use every day, but perhaps you know the word “censor” – one who decides which idea or behavior is appropriate and which is not. When I say a person is censoriousness, I mean that person is a negative critic who enjoys pointing out how others have fallen short – someone who gets a real kick out of noting all the ways that someone else has failed, and gleefully correcting that person – often publicly.

In the passage we’ve heard today, Jesus is saying, “Look, I’m inviting you to come on board as a follower, a disciple. I don’t need any enforcers.”

logineyeMore than that, Jesus specifically (and humorously) warns his followers against hypocrisy. The image of someone attempting to do the delicate work of helping a friend remove a small particle of dust from their eye while having a giant log protruding from their own face is meant to be alarming. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of practicing our faith in order to be seen by other people rather than as a means to commune with our Creator. Here, he condemns the ways that we are prone to become fascinated with the apparent shortcomings of someone else while conveniently overlooking our own sinfulness.

The first two-thirds of the Sermon on the Mount teach us to live in a posture of humility and repentance; our Lord challenges us to grow a generous spirit and a gracious heart. How can I attack someone when my arms are open toward them in an embrace? How can I step on you when I’m already on my knees in repentance and gratitude?

In this passage, Jesus invites us to remember and to recognize our own sinfulness and shortcomings before we presume to call attention to those of our sisters or brothers.

And you say, “Fair enough, Dave, but are we just supposed to let anything go? Doesn’t the scripture point out time after time that if we see someone engaged in sin, we’re supposed to help them through it? We’re supposed to call them on it? We’re supposed to challenge them to do better?”

You’re right. We are called to do that. But not in a way that weaponizes the truth or diminishes the humanity of our sisters and brothers. We can only begin conversation with the other when we recognize that we, too, have fallen short of what Christ expects of us.

Why do you think that we have a prayer of confession near the beginning of worship every week? Because before we can rightly hear the Word of God, before we can approach God in prayer, before we can offer our gifts to God, we need to remember that we’re not who we’d like to be, we’re not who we’re called to be, and lots and lots of days, we’re far from who we pretend to be. When we acknowledge that kind of brokenness in our own lives, it’s hard to get too self-righteous about the sin we see in our neighbor’s life.

Richard Rohr is one of the leading Catholic social thinkers today, and he has said, “Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change anyone else.”[3]

If I am paying attention to the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, the only way that I’ll be able to approach you with any commentary on your own behavior is in a posture of gentleness and humility. Paul said as much when he was writing to his friends in Rome. Apparently, there had been some disagreement in that congregation as to whether it was appropriate for believers to buy meat from pagan butchers – if an animal had been sacrificed to a false god, could that animal be eaten in good conscience? Friendships were breaking up over this question, and the unity of the church was at stake. In response, Paul reminded Christians that each of us is accountable to God in every situation; the people with whom we are so upset are people for whom Jesus died. Paul wondered whether our treatment of others would be more likely to draw them closer to the love of Jesus, or to drive them away.

Look, there are all kinds of reasons for us to look at each other’s behavior and wonder about it. Chances are you’ve already had sixteen opportunities today to either take or give offense to someone else. We disagree on who we want in which bathrooms, on how our government should spend its money, on what we ought to do on the Sabbath, on how we discipline our children… I know. I know.

And much of that merits conversation. Some of that deserves to be challenged. I know. I know.

Yet how will we speak? And how will we be heard?

Again, to return to Richard Rohr: he once wrote, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.”[4]

What a gutsy prayer that is! What if every day, before I got on Facebook, before you showed up at work, before either one of us thought it was our responsibility to proclaim where the rest of the world has fallen short, we asked God to show us a place we needed to grow?

And what if we were gutsy enough to ask each other for help in being that kind of people?

I’m just saying…

No, I’m not just saying… I’m telling you that every day (and twice on Sundays!) I know that I fall short of being the man that God calls me to be, and yet here I am standing up here challenging you to do it better. I’m asking you to live with a generous spirit today, to choose to know the truth about yourself and to believe the best about your neighbor. I’m asking you to cut that person with whom you disagree some slack, to risk being a little more encouraging than you might normally be, and to try to get a glimpse of someone else’s life from their perspective before you presume to tell that person how wrong she or he is.

Here’s the deal, my friends: at the beginning of this message I asked you to imagine what people might think of when they think of the church – what picture they had when they thought of what Jesus might say, and how he might say it.

face2facebook_faces_matrix-blackI don’t know who you pictured when I asked you that, but here’s the truth: do you want to know what your world thinks Jesus looks like? Look in the mirror. That’s not the whole answer, but that’s a part of it – or it should be.

 

JesusMosaicLook in the mirror, and remind me to do the same, and perhaps together we can help the world to see the Christ who loves them like crazy. Let us “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] “It’s Rude! It’s Crude! It’s Stupid! Just Sayin’” http://www.npr.org/2010/12/18/132160770/its-rude-its-crude-its-stupid-just-sayin

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1963, p. 204)

[3] quoted at https://twitter.com/cccstayner/status/701775977668431874

[4] from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

Wonder vs. Worry

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On April 17, we returned from our Lenten/Easter hiatus from this message and considered Jesus’ charge to be worry-free.  We did so by listening to the Word contained in Matthew 6:25-34 as well as Proverbs 3:5-8.

 

Some people call it “quote-mining” or “contextomy”. You may not be familiar with either of those terms, but I know you’ve seen this practice in action. I’m talking about the ways that we pick and choose what to repeat to others to make sure that our message, our presumptions, our prejudices come across in the best light possible.

SevenPosterFor instance, when the film Se7en was released, Entertainment Weekly printed a pretty harsh review, noting that the best part of the entire move was the opening credits: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.” When they printed a movie poster, however, it read glowingly, “a small masterpiece!”

In 2013, the British daily paper called The Guardian ran an article about the wisdom of touring Sri Lanka. The author said, “Sri Lanka has the hotels, the food, the climate and the charm to offer the perfect holiday…It’s just a pity about the increasingly despotic government.” Yet within hours, the official Sri Lankan news agency provided a highly-edited link to the article, proclaiming “Sri Lanka has everything to offer the perfect holiday”.[1]

You might wonder why this matters today, here… It’s simple – people do this all the time in church. We find a little nugget that we like in the Bible, and then we memorize it and we repeat it and we sell it on t-shirts or inspirational posters. It doesn’t always work well, of course. Try quoting Hosea 1:2 at the next seminar for Christian singles: “Go and marry a prostitute who will bear illegitimate children conceived through prostitution.” Without the proper context, this verse is at least misleading if not dangerous.

Similarly, how many times have you heard someone quote Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”? So often we take that to mean that you can literally do anything: run a marathon, win the Super Bowl, solve a Rubik’s Cube… because Christ will give you the strength to do whatever you want. Of course, when Paul wrote that sentence, he was talking about his own imprisonment and difficulties, and what he really meant was that he could get through or endure anything in the knowledge that Christ was with him. Context matters.

SermonMountI say all of this because we return to the Sermon on the Mount today, not having been here since January. And the reading that you’ve just heard represents some of the most beloved, most familiar language in the entire Bible. You’ve seen these words on greeting cards, on wall décor at the Christian bookstore, and in a thousand memes that come across social media.

And very few, if any, of these instances include the first word of the reading: “Therefore” (in Greek, dia touto). When someone says “therefore”, it is incumbent on us to read what has come before – that provides necessary context and information. “Since all of this is true, then…” So before we get to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field we need to remember what Jesus has already said.

Throughout the message, Jesus has indicated repeatedly that the life of a disciple is difficult because we engage the world on different terms than do those who are not followers. More specifically, he has just finished a statement about accumulating wealth and the dangers that arise when we build our lives around the service and worship of Mammon rather than God. He says that if we want to serve Mammon, or wealth, we can do so – but in seeking to orient our lives that way we will invariably be saying “no” to the life of faithfulness that he expects from his followers.

Having said all of that, then, he says “Therefore… If you want to serve God, and if you want to de-throne Mammon from your life, you can start by letting go of worry.” Worry, Jesus says, can get in the way of faithful service to God and neighbor, and has no place in the Christian life.

Which sounds good in theory, but the truth is very few people will confess to enjoying worry; most of us wish we had fewer worries; and when someone tells us “Hey, don’t worry”, that’s about as helpful as having a friend tell you to “Cheer up” or “don’t be mad”. “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” As my niece reminded me this morning, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” Thanks, Jesus. Short of putting Xanax in the drinking water, how are we going to do this?

Fortunately, Jesus has a concrete suggestion or two. “Look at the birds”, he says. “Consider the lilies”.

And we think now that maybe Jesus is guilty of a little decontextualization. Consider the birds? Are you crazy, Jesus? Didn’t you see that news story about die-offs that are occurring these days? Last week, dozens of starlings were found dead in Fairfax County, VA. Before that, villagers in Bangladesh found 5000 dead robins, mynahs, kingfishers, and nightingales in the wake of a storm; last month they were picking dead Northern Gannets off the shores of Florida. If you want us not to worry, I’m not so sure that this is a great example, Jesus…

Relax. Jesus’ point is not that every bird lives an idyllic existence and dies happy of old age. His point is that it is not in the nature of birds to define themselves by their ability to acquire or store material objects. Birds and flowers and other living things are, Jesus said, dependent upon that which is beyond them to satisfy their daily needs and engage in any kind of meaning and purpose.

So when Jesus says, “Look at the birds!” or “Look at the flowers!”, what he’s doing is advocating the spiritual practice of wonder, which almost always, in my experience, leads to the fruits of appreciation and joy – the opposite of worry.

In a world that is obsessed with efficiency and productivity and acquisitiveness and making sure that I have mine, disciples are called to live with the freedom that says that it is not up to us. We are not the first movers, the prime actors, or the ultimately responsible parties. We are followers. We are servants. We are companions. We learn this as we engage in the joy of exploring and wondering – by simply looking at that which surrounds us and seeking to be filled with awe as we contemplate its existence and joy as we see where it leads.

If you know much about me, you know that I have found the ability to engage in the discipline of wonder through immersing myself in the natural world. When I am able to slow down and remember that I am surrounded by a creation that is not mine to control, I am able to be grateful for that gift and to the One who is the Author of such a creation.

A friend passed along a little book entitled How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, and the British author captures my sense of wonder and awe well in this description of his encounter with a drab little bird in his backyard. Listen:

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow - a "Little Brown Job", or "LBJ" if ever there was one in the birding world!

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow – a “Little Brown Job”, or “LBJ” if ever there was one in the birding world!

…I came in from a hard January frost and a feeble winter sun. The sun didn’t do much for me, but it stirred the soul of a dunnock. A dunnock is perhaps the drabbest bird in Britain… a dunnish, brownish, smallish, skulking little thing… And he, ignoring the cold, was filled with a sudden excitement about the coming of the warmer weather. In that iron frost, he felt the tug of spring; and he sang his heart out as a result. It’s not a great song, compared with that nightingale on Walberswick marshes. It’s not a special bird, in terms of peak experiences; I’d come in telling everybody about my hobby, but I wouldn’t take up anybody’s time with a dunnock moment.

But there he was against the cold blue sky, every feather picked out by the low winter sun as he sang his song of spring and gave it absolutely everything. It was a song that made the whole day better. A common bird; a rare moment.[2]

Do you see? I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Consider the birds” – look for ways to be engaged with the world that point you to wonder and awe.

As I’ve said, for me, that means taking a walk or working in the garden. Maybe that helps you wonder, too. If not, here are a few other ideas:

  • plant a seed, preferably with the assistance of a child. Watch. Wait. Repeat.
  • turn off the talk radio and the 24 hour news channels, which are entire industries built on instilling worry and anxiety in people like us.
  • try your hand at baking a loaf of bread
  • take some photos – or just look at some
  • the next cobweb you find – look at it carefully. Consider how intricate, how frail, how temporary – how wonderful – it is.
  • if you have access to a pregnant friend, look at her belly. Touch it. Marvel at the gift of life (warning: make sure that this person is a) a really good friend and b) has given you permission. If you don’t, it’s at least really, really creepy and probably illegal as well!)

In short, stop to consider all of the breathtakingly amazing stuff that happens every single day for which you have absolutely ZERO responsibility and over which you have no control.

KidneyYou may recall that math and science are not the things at which I’m best. In fact, most of my teachers spent a great deal of time suggesting that I major in English or Social Studies of some sort. And yet the single best lecture I’ve ever heard was in my required biology course at Geneva College, where Dr. Calvin Freeman spoke for three hours on the topic of “The Renal Cell Structure as it Reflects the Glory of God.” In that talk, Dr. Freeman spent two afternoons describing for us in painstaking detail the ways that the cells in our kidneys were structured and how they functioned. His point was that if we never had the book of Genesis, if we never read a word of the Creation, even then we could ascertain the power and majesty of the Creator simply by looking at and learning from the Creation. Dr. Freeman taught me about wonder, and I’ve always been grateful for that.

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

When we wonder, we are more free to be involved in and interested in this thing that is greater than we are; when we consider that for which we are not responsible, we are better equipped to do what we can to participate in the world that is bigger than we are. As we discover the work, the care, the beauty of the source of all life, we are increasingly free to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness – two other things that are not ours to manipulate or purchase.

Consider the birds… Look at the lilies… In admiring and appreciating that which is not ours to control, command, produce, or achieve – it becomes easier to use what we do have and who we are becoming in ways that are congruent with God’s purposes for us, our neighbor, and the world.

You’ll see a lot in the next few days, I suspect, about “Earth Day.” You’ll hear about the weather. You’ll probably rejoice in or complain about it. The pollen will have you sneezing or itching. The birds are on the move. Notice this, people of God. Notice it. And give thanks. And live like it matters, not just to you, but to your neighbor and to the One who gave it to us, and the One who takes great delight in it and in you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] These and other instances of quote-mining can be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_quoting_out_of_context#cite_note-7

[2] From How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, Simon Barnes (Pantheon, 2005). I don’t have a page number because my copy has gone missing; this quote was found here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1176663883

How Do You Know?

The Sunday after Easter God’s people in Crafton Heights took a walk with some of Jesus’ followers from Jerusalem to Emmaus – seven miles in an afternoon, but life-changing in its effect.  We talked about how one can really know anything, and how sometimes we just keep plugging away when “knowing” seems so difficult. Our texts included Luke 24:13-35 and  Acts 5:27-32.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1918), Gang nach Emmaus

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1918), Gang nach Emmaus

All things considered, it was a lousy day. I mean, I am sure that these fellows had had lousy days before, but my hunch is this was the lousiest of days.

Their friend had died — he had been set up by the powers that be, actually. It was a kangaroo court — no real justice at all. But more than being grief-stricken at the loss of a friend; more than the anger and indignation that came from the failure of the judicial process, there was just a sense of lost-ness for these two men. Because in addition to being their friend, he was their leader. Their teacher. He had called to them several years ago. “Follow me”, he said. And they had. They had walked away from their jobs — good jobs — and from their comfortable lifestyles. They had left their material comforts. They really believed that he was the Messiah.

They couldn’t help but think, “If Jesus really was who he said he was, none of this would have happened.”

To make things worse, there had been some sort of grave robbery – his body had apparently been taken from the tomb, and some of their other friends were evidently hallucinating and making up crazy stories.

And to cap it all off, it was the first day of the week. Yes, I know you think of it as Sunday, but in that culture, it was the day after the Sabbath. It was a work day. And here we find Cleopas and his friend leaving Jerusalem, walking the seven miles to Emmaus, looking, I suppose, for work. Trying to re-enter a world that they thought they had left for good. Wondering what they would say about the three-year gap on their resumés, what they would say to their families, and how they might re-enter life in the village.

It was the lousiest of days.

And in the midst of this particularly lousy day, a stranger approaches. He wants to talk. At first, the men try to make non-committal grunts and send various messages through the use of body language. They try to ignore him. But He won’t be deterred. He wants to talk religion with them. That’s just what I like, when I have a headache and I get on the bus or an airplane and the guy next to me starts to talk about his faith….

But slowly, against their wills, perhaps, these men are drawn in by the stranger. He begins to explain the story to them — he points out how it wasn’t like they thought it was at all. He was telling the truth, he was saying things that were right — but they had never thought of them that way before.

And then the night falls and the journey ends. The day is no less lousy — they still have nothing, they still must find a new life; but somehow, something is different. They exchange glances and say, “You know, the least we could do is invite him to stay the night. No need for him to go to a motel.”

They gather at the table and gesture to the religious fellow. “You go ahead and say grace”, they say. “It’s our custom, after all. But you say it. Neither one of us feels very religious about now.”

And then the stranger disappears. And, oddly enough, the two men don’t seem to comment on his disappearance. They don’t care. They don’t even think twice. Because now they KNOW. It makes total sense to them. They KNOW who he was.

And so in a heartbeat this lousy day is transformed into the best of days. These two formerly worn-down and bedraggled men have a new spring in their step as they hustle back to Jerusalem and seek to tell what they know to the others. That seven miles that seemed to drag all afternoon is measured in a heartbeat on the return trip.

They want to tell what they know. They have to tell what they know.

And as I reflect on this compulsion to share what they’ve come to know, I think about how it is that we know anything. It seems to me that there are three ways of knowing, or maybe three times when we can know a thing. I’m talking about a concept known as “epistemology”, that branch of philosophy which seeks to understand “how do we know what we know?”

We can know something in anticipation of it actually occurring. We can know it in REHEARSAL, if you will. Let’s say a couple comes to me and wants to get married. They know something about marriage already. And we meet, and meet, and meet some more, and we set a date. And we begin to get a picture for what the wedding will be like. And we even have a rehearsal. We know what the songs will sound like, who will stand where, say what, etc. We know who will be here for the event. We know what’s going to happen.

In the same way, when it comes to walking with Jesus, many of us know a great deal. We grow up in rehearsal. We know that Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. We know that God loves me the way I am, that God watches over us. We’ve been told that forever. It has been rehearsed into our lives, some of us.

In a deeper sense, though, an event is not fully known until it is REALIZED. That is to say, we know something as it is occurring. To go back to our friends at the wedding, we could say that the rehearsal prepared them but they really know that they are getting married when they stand up front with me and hear the scriptures, say the vows, light the candles, and so on.

And in our faith, at least for some of us, that’s how it is. We have undeniably seen God’s hand in our lives. We felt the healing, we heard the voice, we knew the Presence. It wasn’t just what we learned about back in Sunday School – it was the Lord, and the Lord had come to us.

But let’s be honest. We’ve all been to weddings where concentration on the marriage at hand is virtually impossible. The bride has had a fight with her mother that’s left them both in tears; the groom is shocked to see how many people there are in the room; the flower girl is crying; the soloist forgets the words to the song — there are any number of reasons that even as the marriage is being realized, it is not fully known — there are just too many distractions, too much confusion, so much business.

And our lives, if we’re honest, are more often like that. We are sidetracked by pain or illness. We think of how we have been trained, of the “rehearsals” that we’ve been put through, and we think, “There’s no way that this could be true. Jesus loves me? How could that be? God is good? Are you sure?” Sometimes, even as the event is occurring, we cannot know it fully. It’s just too confusing.

The third way to know something is through REFLECTION or RECOLLECTION. We look back on the thing for which we have rehearsed and which has, in fact, been realized, and we say, “Oh, I get it. I see now.”

Our wedding couple, for instance, somehow makes it through the wedding day. They go to the reception, hop on the cruise, and take a well-deserved vacation. Four weeks after they get home, they get a package from the photographer. They watch a video. They see the film. They read the cards that came with the gifts. Maybe she practices signing her new name. And then, as they share breakfast together, it hits them. “Holy smokes! We’re married. We’re really married!”

Those of us who are followers of Jesus of Nazareth know how that can be. WE remember what has been said and when; we recollect the ways that it has affected us. We can, in faith, look back on the lives we’ve led and say, “I have seen the hand of God at work. I didn’t always understand it, but I know now that God was in control the whole way through. He has not left me.”

But that’s not what always happens, is it? Sometimes, we still feel left alone.

When it comes to matters of faith, sometimes the theories of epistemology fall short. Sometimes, no matter how great the rehearsal, what the process of realization or pattern of remembrance – we just can’t grasp it. We don’t know. And it hurts.

Years ago I sat in a delivery room of a hospital. Two of my best friends in the whole world had been told that they’d not be able to have another child. Yet against all odds, she got pregnant. They told her to expect a rough pregnancy. For three months, she was in the hospital. Then, they said, “You’re in the clear. The baby is fine. Any day now, you’ll have a healthy child Congratulations.” And then something happened. We still don’t know what. But all I know is that it was a Friday afternoon and here I am holding their daughter. Who has died. And the miracle of life that they had anticipated is nothing but a cruel hoax.

And in that delivery room I looked at Jesus and I said, “If you really were who you said you were, none of this would have happened.”

I bet that many, if not all of you, know how it feels to be looking heavenward and shaking a fist and wishing that this day, this week, this life wasn’t so lousy. You hear the story about the walk to Emmaus, and it all makes sense to you – right up to the point where everything gets all better for them. If only things got all better for you, you think, then you could know.

Not long after the baby died, I found a poem, called “Resurrection”, by Mary Ann Bernard. I know that I’ve printed this in the newsletter before, and I have some copies with Sharon in the back if you’d like one. Listen:

Long, long, long ago;

Way before this winter’s snow

First fell upon these weathered fields;

I used to sit and watch and feel

And dream of how the spring would be,

When through the winter’s stormy sea

She’d raise her green and growing head,

Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow

I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow

And thought somehow my pain would pass

With winter’s pain, and peace like grass

Would simply grow. The pain’s not gone.

It’s still as cold and hard and long

As lonely pain has ever been,

It cuts so deep and far within.

Long before this winter’s snow

I ran from pain, looked high and low

For some fast way to get around

Its hurt and cold. I’d have found,

If I had looked at what was there,

That things don’t follow fast or fair.

That life goes on, and times do change,

And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow

I thought that this day’s sunny glow,

The smiling children and growing things

And flowers bright were brought by spring.

Now, I know the sun does shine,

That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime

A flower comes. It groans, yet sings,

And through its pain, its peace begins.

 

Janet Brooks-Gerloff (1992), Emmaus

Janet Brooks-Gerloff (1992), Emmaus

Have you ever felt like if Jesus really was who he said he was, that none of your pain would have happened? The only thing I can say is to tell you do what Cleopas and the other disciple did. You see, when all that they had rehearsed seemed senseless; when they thought that they had realized the worst; and when all their recollections were tinged with pain; the only way that they could have known the power of Jesus — the only way that they could have KNOWN that all of it was true, was to somehow keep close to that stranger on the road. To go. To somehow keep listening, keep talking, keep giving Jesus chances to take, give thanks, break, and sustain them.

Luke says, and I believe him, that Jesus’ desire is to be made known to you. Can you lay hold of the truth that God has reached into your story, your past, and has put you here this day? Like the earliest disciples, all we have to go on is an empty tomb. And today, we’re walking along the road, talking about how we didn’t think we were going to end up here. People say that he’s alive. But it seems like a fairy tale – and it seems pretty disconnected with our lives. What do you think about that? Where will you go with that?

Beloved in Christ – he is risen, just as he said! Jesus has risen. He has risen indeed.