On Easter Sunday, 2018, the saints at Crafton Heights spent the second worship of the morning retracing the steps of a long journey on a horrible day – the walk to Emma’s (and back!). Thoughts on the ways that we fear isolation and loneliness, and the impact those things can have on our hearts… and wondering why the Gospels are so soft on explanations but so big on presence. This message is based on Luke 24:13-35 as well as Isaiah 25:6-9.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below
In January of 1987 I was invited to take part in a two week course in Southern California. I was so excited to be able to participate! We were given a day off, and while many of my colleagues went to see Hollywood or the Pacific Ocean, I went to Disneyland. I don’t know whether it says more about my colleagues or me that I couldn’t convince anyone else to go, but the short story is that I went to Disneyland by myself. And it was miserable. Every single time I stepped foot anywhere, I kept thinking, “You know who would really like this?” I found people looking at me as the creepy guy who had to fill in the extra seat on the rides. It was so bad that on three different occasions that day I found a pay phone and called a friend just to tell them that I wished that they were there – and that I thought that they’d be having fun.
(For those of you who are under 40 years old, I should say that once upon a time, we didn’t all have phones in our pockets. If we were away from home and needed to make a call, we had to find a machine, put money in it, remember the phone number, and dial our friends, hoping that they were home to answer their phones – that’s what life was like back in the dark ages).
What about the rest of you? Can you think of a time when you definitely did notwant to be alone? What about when you were in the ICU waiting room? Or maybe it’s a big holiday, and you don’t have anywhere to go… Have you ever longed for the company of family or friends on Thanksgiving or a birthday or an anniversary?
When we find ourselves in a situation where we are sure that we shouldn’t be alone, what do we do?
Well, if we’re smart, and honest with ourselves, we own that fact and we do something about it. We reach out to friends or neighbors and explain, saying, “Wow, you know, this is really hard right now. I’d prefer not to be alone. I’m really anxious, or depressed, or frightened. I wonder if you’d be willing to come and wait with me…”
Of course, how often are we smart and honest with ourselves? Not as often as we should be, are we? And so oftentimes on those days when we know we should not be alone, we act as if it’s no big deal, or we’re simply afraid to bother anyone else. So we pretend that we’re notanxious or depressed or afraid. We sit at home and eat half a gallon of ice cream by ourselves, or we pretend that we’re just going to sit at the computer for a while and check Facebook for a moment and wind up getting sucked into the muck of internet porn, or we think that we unwind with a beer but wind up having 12 of them and that leads to going to bed with a stranger… in short, there are times when we are so pained by being alone that we do whatever we can to numb that pain, that isolation, that fear, that anxiety.
The power of isolation is real, and loneliness can lead to incredibly destructive behaviors and attitudes. We all experience pain and fear – but how we respond to them can make all the difference.
The disciples who we met in our reading from Luke, for instance, were two individuals who may have been traveling together, but in many ways, they were alone. They had lost everything that had mattered to them, the most important of which was the hope that up until three days ago had carried their spirits. And now, this Sunday morning, they are trudging back to their homes. They walk together, but they are fundamentally alone.
A stranger approaches, and engages them in conversation. Before they know it, the day is gone and they stand in front of the home that is their destination. Now, they’ve got some deciding to do. Clearly, this conversation has had some sort of an impact on them. Neither one of these folks has processed it yet, but each is aware that the presence of the stranger has mattered.
As they stand at the gate of the home in Emmaus, it would have been perfectly acceptable for them to shake hands with this stranger and wish him well as he continued his travel. After all, there is nothing about their situation that has changed in the least. From their perspective, reality is unchanged: they’d left everything to follow Jesus; they’d given up their jobs, their homes, their dreams in order to follow the one whom they’d imagined could make such a difference, only to see him give himself so willingly to the humiliation of execution on a Roman cross.
I’d imagine that it would have been easy for these disciples to have felt as though they’d been schnookered – that they’d fallen for something that proved not to be true, as if they’d become the victims of a terrible April Fool.
Do you see what I mean? Even after traveling all day with this stranger, nothing about their lives was substantively different than it had been that morning. Spending the day in conversation with this man hasn’t fixed anything.
And yet, somehow, it’s better. Nothing about their external situation has changed, but each of them senses that somehow, there is something that has happened in on the inside.
So they have to decide. What will they do with this stranger?
They turn to him, and they plead: “Stay with us.”
That’s all they say. “Look, it’s getting dark. Stay here. Please.” And he enters the home.
And the briefest of pleas (“stay!”) leads to a shared meal. I might have skipped that part, had I been them… The meal leads to an occasion for recognition as to who this stranger really is. That recognition leads to an incredible moment of honesty with themselves and each other. Again, I’m not sure I’d have been courageous enough to risk being that open with my friend.
At that point, I think that I look at my friend, and he’s looking at me, and he starts to say, “Did you…I mean, while he was talking on the road, was there…” And in my head, I’m thinking, “I think that guy was Jesus!” but there’s no way I’m going to go THERE. I saw Jesus die. He’s not coming back.
And so if I’m the one on the road to Emmaus, I give my buddy the look that says, “Don’t go talking crazy around me, fella.” And that shuts him up. And if I’m one of the people on the road to Emmaus, maybe the other disciples never, ever hear about the conversation on the road or the breaking of the bread.
But because these people are able to be honest with each other, they are able to engage on an even greater risk – and they return to Jerusalem to speak with the other disciples. Remember, these folks had probably been there when the women came in talking about the empty tomb, and they probably knew that everyone thought that these women had lost their minds. Now, they are willing to go back and risk that same treatment because of the experience that they themselves had had.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make with this – that throughout this day, the realities these disciples faced did not change substantially. There was no part of their circumstances that had been radically altered, so far as they had been able to know in that moment.
And yet, in the experience of simply trying to stay close to Jesus, everything was different. And in that trying to stick close to Jesus, they find that they are able to make decisions that are, somehow, incrementally better.
When I think about this idea of just trying to stick close to Jesus, I’m reminded of a story that Garrison Keillor told about the time that 24 Lutheran Pastors visited Lake Wobegon, MN as a part of a study tour to understand the problems of life in rural America. Pastor Ingqvist agrees that they guys could use a night out, and so he accepts Wally’s invitation to host the 24 pastors on his 26 foot pontoon boat. What could go wrong, right?
Well, the folks quickly discover that putting so many middle aged, portly, bearded Lutheran pastors on a boat that size is not wise. As Keillor tells it,
…They had reached the edge of the laws of physics. They lurched to the starboard side and there – in full view of the town – the boat pitched forward and dumped some ballast: [a batch of] Lutheran ministers in full informal garb took their step for total immersion.
As the boat sank, they slipped over the edge to give their lives for Christ, but in only five feet of water. It’s been a hot dry summer…
The ministers stood perfectly still in the water and didn’t say much at all. Five feet of water, and some of them not six feet tall, so their faces were upraised to the bright blue sky. They didn’t dare walk for fear of drop-offs, and their clothes were too heavy to swim in…
Keillor describes how these men were unsuited to this problem; they were not used to asking anyone for help, and so they had to practice crying out in their rich baritone voices… “um, help… help… help…” He tells us of “…twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.”
But then there is a new voice: “Clint [Bunsen’s] little nephew Brian waded out to them. ‘It’s not deep this way’, he said. He stood about fifteen feet away, a little boy up to his waist.” The pastors gingerly edged toward the sound of the boy’s voice and gradually found their way to a place where they could first stand, and then walk, out of the lake – twenty-four pastors dripping wet, covered by clothes that would have sunk them, but ready to participate in the rest of the conference.
Maybe I’m reading into that little story too much, but it seems to me that it’s a fitting parable for the Christian experience. I do not know of anyone who has lived a life of faith and been spared trouble or difficulty. I am unacquainted with anyone who has accepted Jesus and thereby avoided suffering.
In my experience, the life of faith is not about accepting all of the right doctrines or finding a way to agree intellectually with all of the appropriate “isms”. Instead, it’s more like finding myself up to my neck in pain or doubt or confusion and hearing a voice that I believe I can trust telling me that the ground might be a little firmer over this direction… It’s about sticking as close as I can to Jesus and holding onto him when I can.
And because I know what it feels like to be swamped and gasping for air, every now and then I feel as though I have the opportunity to lift my voice and call out, “You know, I think it’s a little shallower over here. It’s not quite as overwhelming in this direction.”
The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when justice would be shared, death defeated, and alienation and anxiety swallowed up. The key component of that day, we’ve heard, is that people will say “we have waited for God.” They do notsay, “Aha! We were right all along, and those suckers were wrong.” There is no cry of exultation because all of their doctrine was correct. Instead, there is a confession that all of this has happened because they were able to keep close, somehow, to the Lord.
Jesus’ friends looked back on Isaiah’s prophecy and said, “You know, we are closer now than we were then. We can see more evidence of death being swallowed and hope being brought to light. In Jesus, we have a glimpse of what God is like and we have an inkling of what God is doing. So we’re going to keep waiting, keep hoping, and keep doing our best to stick close to him.”
Look – this is Easter Sunday. I’m not sure why you’re in church today, but I can tell you this: if you are here expecting answers, hoping that you’ve come to a place where you can have everything explained to you… or, worse, if you’ve come because you havea lot of answers that you can’t wait to lay down on all of the rest of us… well, give it a break.
I’m not interested in talking with anyone who thinks that they can explain things – especially things like suffering and violence and injustice and death.
But if you’ve come because you’re willing to watch, to wait, and to stay close to Jesus – well maybe together we can learn a little more about the power and implications of hope and resurrection in our lives and in our world. And if we do that, then maybe we’ll be better equipped to help each other find a place to stand that isn’t quite so treacherous or frightening. And maybe God might even use us to remind someone else that it might just be possible to get through this thing together. Thanks be to God for the Christ who is willing to stay with us as we wait on the promises of God. Amen.