Good News and Beautiful Feet

[This was recorded on Friday, August 7, for streaming on Sunday, August 9, for the John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Henrietta NY. So, if you are really disciplined, you might wait till Sunday or Monday to listen to it. But if not….  The text is Romans 10:5-15, along with Isaiah 52:7.]

 

Do you know how many bones are in the human body? Do you know where 1/4 of those bones are clustered? In the adult body, there are about 206 bones. About a quarter of those bones are in our feet. The human foot is an amazing creation. Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. I am a jogger, so I appreciate how my feet work and keep working. I give the 52 bones, 66 joints, and over 200 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in my two feet hard workouts, including one this morning—and they keep performing.

And so, I am struck by this phrase that occurs in both of our readings this morning: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Do you think of feet as beautiful? Do you think of your feet as beautiful? I don’t mean to get too personal, but feet are beautiful in what they can do. The next time you are trimming your nails, note the intricacies of the human foot.

And that has me thinking about some of the ways we refer to our feet. “Put your best foot forward.” Do you have a favorite foot, a best foot? “You really put your foot in your mouth.” How do you do that? I should know; I have done it enough. “Footloose and fancy free.” “I’ll foot the bill.” Is that something a football player does? In our climate zone, we wear socks and shoes most of the year. One of the delights of summer is not wearing shoes. I love being bare-footed. I really love walking bare-footed on a sandy beach. If you not already bare-footed now, please take off whatever is on your feet.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” I guess that means that preachers of the good news have especially beautiful feet. I have beautiful feet! But not more than anyone that brings good news to another. Not more beautiful than your feet, as you bring good news to others.

I have been following the lectionary readings in Romans this summer, preaching from several of them. Some background will help us understand how this passage fits in Romans. Romans is the most theologically rich of all Paul’s letters and has shaped Christian thought over these 20 centuries. This letter was written in about 57 AD. Paul didn’t start the church in Rome and had not visited it yet, but he knew people in it and he longed to go there. He knew it was in the center of the Roman Empire, the most powerful empire of that time.

Two issues loomed before those believers in Rome, one political and one racial. The political issue was that the emperor was Nero, who was ruthless. He demanded absolute loyalty and dealt harshly with anyone that withheld it from him. Before his reign ended, he would unleash brutal assaults on his perceived enemies. Because those Christians honored Jesus as Lord, they could not and would not call Nero lord. The Latin word caesar comes directly from the New Testament word for lord. Nero would eventually display his wrath on Christians for not calling him lord.

We are in a presidential election year. Though our political situation is nothing like theirs, still we are reminded that no political leader may claim our absolute allegiance: not Trump or Biden, not Lincoln or Washington, not Reagan or Obama. I have my favorites, but I am under no illusions: they are all flawed persons. Jesus alone deserves my absolute allegiance and full loyalty. Jesus alone is Lord over all creation. No political leader can demand the total allegiance and loyalty of a follower of Jesus, for Jesus alone is Lord.

The second challenge dealt with the long-standing enmity between Jews and Gentiles. That certainly rivaled the Black-White racial challenges we face today. Racial injustice is not unique to our country; it exists everywhere. And it certainly exists in the United States. We do well to take it seriously. Much of my summer book reading has been about the American racial history and current expressions of it. As former congressman John Lewis’s faith in Jesus compelled him to march, protest, and call for civil rights and voting rights for Black Americans, my faith in Jesus compels me to care about people that have been enslaved and people that continue to be dealt with unjustly.

The Jew-Gentile situation in that time was comparable. The first followers of Jesus were mainly Jewish; the second wave were largely Gentile. Most of the early leaders were Jews. While glad that Gentiles were responding to the good news, they were a bit threatened as well. What if the Gentiles take over the church? I trust that you can see how contemporary this letter is. The struggle was real. Paul himself was a Jew of impeccable credentials, then God sent him to share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles.

If the young church didn’t meet the Jew-Gentile challenge, it would have splintered and become so far removed from God’s design, that it may have died in one generation. Instead, they worked it through, empowered by God’s word and Spirit. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Saying there is no distinction doesn’t mean they weren’t aware of racial differences. It means there is ultimately no distinction—we are all created in God’s image and moved by our creator. Our common humanity is greater than our racial differences.

In Galatians, Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Clearly, male and female still exist, as much as Jew and Gentile, and Black and White. But now in the light of Christ, the differences aren’t allowed to divide us. I am White, from European heritage. I now have three grandchildren. Two are half-Asian and one is African-American. I am White and my wonderful grandchildren are people of color. And we are family. I am thrilled to be part of a family with diversity and several shades of pigmentation. That is how the church was meant to be and always should be. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Everyone, without distinction, may call on the Lord. Everyone, without distinction, is welcome here. In Christ we have a unity that transcends all human differences of gender, color, class, or national origin. It doesn’t obliterate our color and racial distinctions, our gender distinctions, but it makes them the occasion for glorious diversity, not division. In Christ, we all belong in one body. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Are there any fans of Mr. Rogers listening? I thought so. I love Mr. Rogers and my love for him grows as, now dead, he continues to remind us of God’s love in our neighborhoods. Do you remember what happened in episode #195? It first aired on May 9, 1969, but clips of one section of it continue to be shown. Officer Clemmons, a Black police officer, came on the set to visit Mr. Rogers. He had just finished his shift, which meant his feet were tired. Mr. Rogers had a little wading pool with water in it, the kind we use for toddlers to cool off on hot days. Mr. Rogers said that his feet were tired, so he was going to soak them in the pool. He asked Officer Clemmons if he wanted to soak his feet too. With socks and shoes off, and pant legs rolled up, a Black man and a White man put their feet in the same water as they sat side by side and talked. In many parts of our country it was still the custom that Whites and Blacks not be in the same water, sometimes enforced by law. And there on national TV, Mr. Rogers showed children and watching parents a better way. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The words “foot” and “feet” occur almost 400 times in the Bible. These feet of ours are important to God. One passage with many references to feet especially moves me, found in Luke 7.

“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.  And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.  She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. [The Pharisee took offense at this.]  Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.’”

How beautiful are the feet of Jesus. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion Must Lead to Action

[This sermon was given for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, on August 2, 2020. It can be found in video form on their YouTube channel.]

 

This is a tough season for parties. I have a grandson that graduated from college two months ago. No graduation party. I have a grandson that graduated from high school one month ago. No graduation party. It’s a tough season for parties.

 

There are two parties in Matthew 14, the one we just read about, with thousands being fed, and the one that preceded it. One was delightful and one was despicable. The first party was thrown by Herod. The beginning of today’s gospel passage alludes to it. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. What kind of party was that? It was a degenerate party which climaxed with the beheading of John the Baptist. That explains Jesus’ withdrawal. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. Who could blame him for wanting some time away from the crowds to grieve for his cousin? To be away with some intimate time with his heavenly father to draw comfort?

 

But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. Faced with this needy crowd, Jesus doesn’t hide from them. He sees their need and responds. He had compassion for them…. The word passion is used too much and too frivolously today. People today talk about being passionate about anything and everything. “I am passionate about rocky road ice cream.” “I am passionate about the musical ‘Hamilton’.” I like good ice cream and I like “Hamilton,” but not to the point of being willing to suffer for them. This word passion is a word of depth. Compassion means to suffer with. It is not used frequently in scripture. The word compassion is only used about eight times in the New Testament. It has the sense of being moved in the depths of one’s being and acting accordingly. True compassion emerges from deep within us and leads to action. Compassion must lead to action.

 

Having poured out himself in curing the sick, Jesus might have thought, “now I can get some rest.” The ever alert disciples recognize another challenge. It is evening and the crowd is hungry and they are in a deserted place with no caterers nearby. This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves. 

 

Send the crowds away? No. God loves these folks. We can’t send them away. They need not go away; you give them something to eat. Do I see a hint of a smile on Jesus’ face? You give them something to eat. I see Peter taking charge. “Andrew, you go to the 7-11. James, you go to Dunkin’s. John, you go to Tim Horton’s. Thomas, you go to Costco. Matthew, go to Wegmans. Tell them we are in a desperate situation. We need food or this crowd will become a mob. Tell them to donate their leftovers, their day old stuff, their out of date stuff. Tell them they can make it a tax write-off.”

 

Jesus said, you give them something to eat. They replied, ‘We have nothing here but….’ Do we hear their desperation? “We have nothing here but…” In their frantic lack of faith and vision, they overlooked the power of what they did have. We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.  Five loaves and two fish do not equal nothing. Not in God’s economy. God specializes in multiplying what we bring. In the fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Zechariah, Jerusalem is in ruins. Zerubbabel has just started the enormous work of rebuilding the temple. It looks hopeless, like putting out a raging forest fire with a squirt gun. The God tells the prophet to say this: Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? They’ll change their tune when they see Zerubbabel setting the last stone in place! God likes small beginnings.

 

The disciples aren’t being unreasonable, for they know that five loaves and two fish wouldn’t feed thousands. They just don’t reckon what God can do with what little things we bring.

Annie Flint wrote a poem, which has also been set to hymn form, about God’s giving. I love the second stanza:

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

 

When they bring Jesus those five loaves and two fish, the Lord goes to work with it. We see a pattern here that occurs throughout the New Testament when bread is broken.

  1. Bring them here to me. 
  2. Blessing what has been brought.
  3. Breaking the bread that was brought. He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves….
  4. Giving it away. the disciples gave them to the crowds.

I see this as the essential pattern for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion. We bring our meager and modest gifts to Jesus. He blesses and breaks them. And then he lets us share the gifts with other.

 

I read recently of a nurse serving in a major urban hospital, which is being challenged by the COVID-19 cases. “Dressed in blue scrubs, she was taking a break in a supply closet to participate in a Communion service at her Lutheran Church. She was communing with a dinner roll and cranberry juice in a medicine cup.” We find out that she has been married five years and has one child. When the service is over, she leaves the supply closet and goes back to work. She wrote, “I cannot stay home. I’m a nurse. We fight when others can’t anymore.” (I read this in The Presbyterian Outlook, June 1, 2020, in an article by Barbara Wheeler.)

 

Today we commune with the Lord in his supper. We bring our meager and modest gifts, and he blesses and breaks them. Then he sends us out to share the feast with others.

 

There are tired and exhausted nurses and medical personnel in this season. Let’s bring them refreshments. Brownies, cookies, cold water. There are protesters and marchers in Rochester most every weekend, working for justice. Let’s bring them refreshments. Wouldn’t it be amazing if churches were bringing them refreshments?

 

Of all the miracles Jesus did, this one holds a special honor. It is the only one recorded in all four gospels. It seems it is saying something we need to hear again and again. In God’s hands, five loaves and two fish can start a feast. In God’s hands, our compassion in response to the needs of others, leads to action in meeting those needs.

 

A few days ago, John Lewis was buried. I have long held him as a hero, an American patriot. As I have been reading since he died, and I heard it said in so many ways in his memorial service a few days ago, that John Lewis was a giver. He brought his life, his five loaves and two fish to Jesus. And then he obeyed Jesus in sharing the feast with all. His faith compelled him to act. Compassion leads to action.

 

Jesus just wanted a little time away, some needed rest and renewal. But the crowd found him. And after all were fed, this is what happened: And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. I have one question. What do you think they did with twelve baskets full of blessed and broken bread? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God Working in All Things

[This sermon was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on July 26, 2020, and can be seen and heard on their FaceBook site.]

 

When I’m home at 6:00pm, if nothing else is going on, I usually have the local news in TV. It often sounds something like this:

The global pandemic infected thousands more people in our country today… Protests about systemic racism nationally and locally are happening downtown regularly, and now even in the suburbs and rural towns…. Local schoolboards are trying to figure out how school will open this fall semester, if it does… The Congress in Washington DC is trying to hammer out a relief package to help the nation get through the economic crisis facing thousands of small businesses and even large businesses…. But wasn’t the weather great today? Let’s take a quick look at the weather for tonight and tomorrow. Wasn’t it a beautiful day! Really? The world is in upheaval.

 

Neil Postman wrote about this in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The torrent of global, national, and local news can be overwhelming and numbing. No wonder that if I’m doing nothing else at 7:30pm, I like to turn on “Jeopardy!” and escape the messiness of our world for 30 minutes.

 

But there is no escaping for people that take the Bible seriously. If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to redeem people in their brokenness, we had better be concerned about the world and our corner of it. Every book in the Bible was written in a particular time and place about which God cared. When we read the Bible, we don’t leave it back there and then, but we hear God speaking here and now. God still loves this world and Jesus is still redeeming us in our brokenness.

 

This has to be the craziest summer of our lives. COVID-19 is a global challenge. In our country, which leads the world in cases and deaths from this novel virus, we are at the same time facing the challenge of systemic racism being unmasked. Nothing about this summer is what we thought it would be six months ago. The baseball season just began, almost four months late with no fans in the stands. Our world is topsy-turvy.

 

The world in which Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome was topsy-turvy. The Roman emperor, Nero, was corrupt. He was crazed about his power and ruthless in exercising it. In that fledgling young church, set in the greatest city of that time, the struggle between Jewish believers, the first wave of the new church, and gentile believers, the second and larger wave, was raging. They were dealing with political corruption and rampant racism. Sound familiar? It is no wonder, then, that Paul addresses both ethnic groups in this letter. Under Nero, the persecution of the church would get worse. It was no easy matter to become a follower of this Jewish peasant Jesus of Nazareth. The road was often hard and bumpy and dangerous.

 

At the heart of Romans is chapter 8, half of which is before us today. It is in some ways the hinge of the letter. If we don’t get this understanding right, we won’t get the rest of the letter right. Two of the verses are particularly memorable. I memorized them in my youth and have not forgotten them. They stand like the vertical suspending towers of a great suspension bridge. Those suspending towers enable the deck of the bridge to carry pedestrians, cars, trucks, and heavy cargo.

 

The first is verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This verse is sometimes translated, “and we know that all things work together….” This NIV translation is preferable. It is God at work in all things. This is not a call for stoicism, for a stiff upper lip, or a Pollyanna optimism. Rather, it is telling us that God is at work in every situation, every circumstance. Sometimes people say that everything happens for a reason. I don’t know just what that means. Many things happen because of human sin and human stupidity. Many things happen because God has established natural laws that are predictable. That is why science is valued by people of faith. God is at work in the natural order. The powerful truth of Romans 8:28 is that God is working in all things—both the good things and the bad things—for the good of those that love God.

 

There is a global scope to God’s work among us. In Colossians 1, Paul writes in the most expansive way of God’s work in Jesus. Listen for the uses of that little word “all”:

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:16-20)

This is our confidence: “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him….”

 

The second suspending tower closes the chapter in one all-encompassing statement: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Having established that God is at work in all things for the good of those who love God, Paul reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God experienced in Jesus. Nothing. Our faith isn’t dependent on circumstances. Our faith isn’t dependent on happy moments. Our faith isn’t dependent on how good life can be or how bad life can be. Our faith isn’t dependent on our ability to explain it or understand all that is going on around us. Our faith is dependent on the love of God exhibited in Jesus.

 

Back to the news in our world. A hurricane is thrashing the Gulf coast of Texas…. Yesterday about a thousand American died from COVID-19. Over four million have been infected thus far…. And this was in our news. Nine days ago, a great American, Congressman John Lewis died. Two years and four months ago, our Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died. I was still new to this region and didn’t know her, but I heard that John Lewis was going to be one of the speakers at the public memorial service at Kodak Hall. I went to it to hear John Lewis. Several thousand people attended. I was seated in the third balcony. There was a former president of the US, a former candidate for president, many members of Congress, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives present. And John Lewis was there. It was a thrill to be in the same room with him and hear him speak. Now our nation is rightly remembering and honoring this icon of the civil rights movement and the conscience of the Congress…. We do not despair. God is at work in all of it. And nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Two nights ago, I stood at the edge of a cornfield in Marion, Wayne County, with my wife and four family members. We gazed at the sky to the northwest for 30 or 40 minutes, until we began to see a comet just under the big dipper. That comet called Neowise was about 64 million miles away. It’s nucleus is just three miles wide. But we saw it. I was awed at the majesty of creation. Behind us Jupiter and Saturn were bright and brilliant. Overhead we could see some of the stretch of our galaxy, the Milky Way. And there was a comet that won’t be visible to this planet for about 68,000 years. We were awed at the immensity and grandeur of the universe.

 

We worship and serve the God of all creation. And that God is working in all things on this little planet for the good of those that love him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.

 

 

 

Exhaustion and Rest

[This sermon was delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Pittsford, NY, on 7.05.2020, based on Romans 7:15-25 and Matthew 11:28-30. It can he heard on that church’s YouTube channel.]

 

I’m exhausted.” Tyler Perry writes in a recent People magazine, anticipating the Fourth of July, “When I was asked to write this essay, I initially said no, and that is so strange for me because I am a man of faith, and I believe greatly in hope.” Thus Tyler Perry, a Black American filmmaker, begins as essay on why he loves America. What was his hesitation? After all, he has tasted what we call the American dream; he is a respected and successful filmmaker and actor. After the untimely death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta a few weeks ago, Perry offered to pay for Brooks’s funeral and for the college educations of Brooks’s four children. He answers his question: “I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted from all the hate and division, the vitriol I see…. I’m exhausted from seeing these senseless murders play out over and over again with nothing changing in our society.”

 

Perry has a five-year-old son. Perry still knows what it is to be stopped by police officers because he is driving a nice car. He knows that he will have to have “the talk” with his son someday, the talk about how to act when police stop you because you are suspicious merely because of your color. Young Black and Brown people, especially men, need to hear the talk because they are far more likely to be stopped for no good reason than Whites. And more likely to be handcuffed and jailed. And more likely to do time for crimes they didn’t commit.

 

Tyler Perry isn’t the only one among us feeling exhausted these days. And it goes way beyond Zoom exhaustion. We are dealing with two major challenges in our country, two viral plagues. One is literally viral, the Covid-19 pandemic. The second is more insidious: the plague of racism as it takes the lives of Black Americans, indigenous Americans, and all people of color. The first one came quickly, but has now been with us over four months, claiming over 125,000 lives. The second planted its seeds four centuries ago when the slave trade rudely uprooted west Africans against their wills and shipped them to our eastern shores. I feel the exhaustion, even from my privileged life.

 

The brutal death of George Floyd six weeks ago was caught by video on the phone of a 17 year old named Darnella Frazier. As she was walking in her Minneapolis neighborhood, she saw Floyd on the pavement with a police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes and 46 seconds, until the Black man was dead. If Darnella hadn’t stopped and taken out her phone and held that camera steady for nearly nine minutes, while a veteran police officer looked at her with a “so what” look, and three other police officers looked on silently as Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother, would we even know about his death? Why do I repeat these details, which some of us have seen and heard scores of times? Because we need to hear it again and again. I need to hear it, for my life has been marked by white privilege. My father never had to have that talk with me.

 

It is exhausting to be alive today and aware of the state of our world and our nation. But it not just our time and our place. Exhaustion is pandemic over the centuries. The Apostle Paul writes of it in a different way, in a different time and place. In Romans 7 he writes in the most personal way of the battle within. Reading this passage again, a passage I know so well, is exhausting. With Paul, I know what it is to want to do the right thing and fail to do it. With Paul, I know what it is to know what I ought not to do and still end up doing it. Are you with me? Do you know this inner conflict? If you say no, I don’t think I can believe you. If you say no, I think you must not be listening. Or you must not care anymore. Because the Bible is clear that the best of us regularly fail.

 

In our Presbyterian/Reformed way of understanding, we have this phrase, “total depravity.” That sounds pretty harsh, but it is a needed understanding. The essence of it for me is that sin has touched every part of my being: body, soul, and spirit. Sin has left no part of me untouched. Even my best actions and highest thoughts and loftiest motivations are not entirely pure. The sin dwelling within me is pervasive. Jesus has come to redeem me and break that sinful bent in me, and he is doing just that. But the struggle within me continues.I do not understand my own actions.” That was Paul’s experience and it is mine.

 

To follow Jesus means experiencing struggle. Any time we attempt to bring change in our ways, we so do so with struggle. For Paul, that change was from trying to keep the law perfectly, which no one can do, to living by God’s grace. Listen to Paul speak about the struggle. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:12-14) Following Jesus demands pressing on, and that can be exhausting.

 

My four month old granddaughter Zora is with us as I write this. She is learning to turn herself over, from her tummy down to her tummy up. Each time she tries it is with struggle. She reaches a point where she is midway, on her side, wanting to turn, but struggling to complete the turn. I am tempted to help her, but that would rob her of the struggle of learning a new way. Now each time it is a little easier. It is becoming natural, however slowly. But still there is struggle.

 

If the struggle to follow Jesus is real—and make no mistake, it is real—the promise of Jesus is just as real. Sometimes it is exhausting. I find it exhausting these days as we deal with these two major struggles: the struggle to mitigate the pandemic and the struggle for the racial justice in our society with deep-seated systemic racism embedded over four centuries. Exhausting? Yes. Then we need to hear this promise, this invitation, from our Lord. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 

 

What good news that is for people experiencing exhaustion. What good news for me. What good news for you. Jesus calls us to the struggle of following, of leading redeemed lives, but he doesn’t leave us to endless exhaustion. He invites us walk with him, yoked with him. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

A yoke works best when two are partnered, sharing the burden side by side. When the partners are unequally yoked, wearing the yoke chafes on the neck and is counter-productive. Jesus comes to us and meets us on level ground. He understands our struggle. He, the Lord of glory, does not lord it over us. He comes and meets us in our struggle. He understands our exhaustion. Both of these aspects of our journey comes together in Hebrews 4: “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (Hebrews 4:11) We strive to enter God’s rest. And find it.

 

The is a story from the Cherokee nation, which parents teach their children. There are two wolves active in us, a good wolf and a bad wolf. We struggle with these two wolves, even as Paul described it in Romans 7. The elder Cherokee teaches the younger that the dominant wolf is the one you feed. For Paul, the struggle is resolved in this bold affirmation: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

 

If you visit Green Hills Memorial Park in southern California, you will find Jesus’ words on a gravestone. My brother died 28 years ago, at his own hand. He has been struggling with deep depression for years. The last time I saw him, he was in the depths of that depression. Three months before his death, he affiliated with a local church and was baptized. I have a photo of that baptism in my study, which I treasure. In the depths, he knew where God’s rest was found. On my brother’s grave marker are these words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

In our exhaustion, there is rest for us, in the yoke shared with Jesus.

 

Three Reports in the News on May 26, 2020

Christian Cooper. George Floyd. Archie Williams.

 

The news on the day after Memorial Day included three incidents that are troubling and indicative of the deep strains of racism in the United States today. The news reports about them are numerous, so I will not repeat the details. You can easily find those detailed reports about all three.

 

Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper are not related. She is white and he is black. Both happened to be in Central Park, New York City, at the same time on Memorial Day. They were in a section for birdwatching. Dogs must be leashed. Mr. Cooper, a veteran birdwatcher, asked Ms. Cooper to leash her unleashed dog. Next thing, she is on her phone calling 911, reporting that an African-American man is threatening her. Calls like this, with racial overtones, happen frequently.

 

George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, MN, the same day. Floyd was unarmed. A white police officer, backed up by several more white officers, hand-cuffed Floyd, held him on the pavement, and pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over five minutes, until Floyd was dead. The mayor of Minneapolis announced the next day that four police officers were fired. A video of what happened is available. It is graphic.

 

Archie Williams, a black man, was on “America’s Got Talent,” a TV talent hunt that runs in the late spring and summer and gets high ratings. He has a very good voice, but it is his story that is compelling. He served over 36 years in a prison in Louisiana for a crime he didn’t commit. A white woman had been violently raped. Law and order demanded that someone be convicted and imprisoned. A young, black man would be ideal. Though there was no evidence that Williams committed the crime, and though he had witnesses about where he was at the time of the crime, he was found guilty. After nearly four decades in a prison known as the bloodiest in the country, The Innocence Project finally got him justice. How Williams was received on “America’s Got Talent” was moving. People, including the judges, were wiping tears from their eyes. But it is not a feel good moment when one realizes that this man had 36 years of his life taken from him, and many more innocent blacks languish in our prisons every day, perhaps wondering if The Innocence Project or The Equal Justice Initiative will be able to free them before they die.

 

What do these stories have in common? They show how black men are seen as threats. Whether there is a reason or not, black men are seen as threatening to whites in America. What do these stories have in common? These things happen all the time in America. And when a patriotic black American named Colin Kaepernick jeopardizes his career as an NFL quarterback to call attention to our racial sins, he is vilified and blacklisted. Even the President of the United States criticizes him in public. These things happen in America all the time.

 

There is trouble in America today. Our four centuries of racism are not over. My heart is heavy for my native land. My heart is heavy for the millions of Americans with black and brown skin, for the immigrant, for the alien, for the native peoples, for all the others among us. My heart is heavy for America.

 

 

The Payroll Protection Program and Churches

Along with thousands of small businesses across the country, churches (when I say churches, I am also including other non-Christian religious bodies) have felt the economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In response to how small businesses have had to furlough or lay off employees, the federal government has provided millions of dollars to help small businesses keep paying employees. The Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program is also available to churches. This troubles me.

 

The Christian Century, May 20, 2020, quotes from a Washington Post article of April 24, 2020, noting that many congregations, feeling the financial pinch of not meeting, have applied for PPP loans and a percentage of them have received them.

 

These are generally understood as loans, to be paid back in better times to come, but under certain conditions these can become grants, with no need to pay back. I am a retired pastor, so this is not affecting me directly, but I am troubled at the possibility of the government helping out churches in the short term, the midterm, or the long term. I am not an expert on these matters, but I did take a look at the SBA website, which tells about PPP loans and the terms by which they are forgiven.

 

I don’t think churches should accept such loans or grants. Our country has, from its beginnings, refused to have any state sanctioned religion. There has been a time-honored wall of separation between state and church. While the church is free to influence the civil government, the government is not free to influence the practice of religious faith. This has served the United States well for over two centuries. Not having a state sanctioned religion has been to the benefit of all religions. Our taxes should not help churches. The government grants churches tax-free status, recognizing the unique nature and role of established religion in a free society. Churches, in turn, do much good for society, well beyond their own memberships. For a few examples, they run food pantries, house 12-step groups, and provide day care centers, not exclusively for their own people, but for all people. For churches to keep their tax-free status, they shouldn’t accept government money to get through this challenging time.

 

As a pastor of one congregation for 38 years, I knew firsthand the struggles of meeting budgets. Churches cannot levy taxes on their members. They are totally dependent on the voluntary giving of their congregations—and the faithfulness of God. To receive financial help from the civil government compromises their freedom. It sends the wrong message to the people in the congregations, whose faithful giving alone should support the churches. If churches receive government help, no matter how great the COVID-19 cost, those churches may become beholden to the government. And the administration in power, be it Republican or Democrat, might well use this governmental largesse to curry political favor come election time.

 

I am all for the government helping small businesses survive this pandemic. I want all the money allocated for small businesses to go to small businesses. Churches are not, in their essence, businesses.

 

These are some of my thoughts. What do you think?

I Like Thomas–I Need Thomas

[This sermon was given for the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on May10, 2020, the fifth Sunday of Easter.]

 

Does Jesus have the right people on this bus? Has he selected the right stuff for these first 12 seats? I’m not sure. Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” writes about how leaders get the right people on the bus. Did Jesus get the right people on this discipleship bus for its initial run? People like Judas? Like Thomas? Should Jesus have hired one of those head-hunting firms that thoroughly vet the candidates?

 

Can we name the first 12? I’ll give you help. Here are six: Peter, James, John, Matthew, Judas, Thomas. Can you name the other six? Not so easy, is it? What kind of grade would we give Jesus for selecting these 12? Sometimes I think I could have done better.

 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke give lists of the 12. It’s interesting that all three begin and end the same way. They begin with Peter. You might guess what name is last on each list (Yes, Judas). In the middle of the pack is Thomas. Any middle children out there? Claim Thomas as your patron saint. You could do worse. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

When Thomas speaks it is always memorable. In John 11, Jesus takes his 12 to Bethany, where Lazarus has died. Jesus says that they must go to where Lazarus is buried. Thomas said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” Open the tomb and move over, Lazarus. Friends are coming in to join you. Ah, Thomas: so loyal he is ready to die for Jesus, or perhaps with Jesus. And we can’t forget that Thomas pops up the second Sunday of Easter every year, needing to see and inspect the wounds of the risen Lord for himself. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

More and more I like Thomas. I do not find him a doubter, but one who is endlessly curious and doggedly loyal. When everyone in the room is wondering what Jesus is meaning, it is Thomas who breaks the silence and blurts out the question. In the evening vespers service last Thursday, we prayed for “courage to be bold disciples.” Thomas fits the bill. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

That is what happens in today’s gospel passage. In John 14, Jesus is on his way to Calvary, to his death. This takes place on Maundy Thursday. His teachings reflect that. He is carrying a burden; he is on a mission. Some of his teachings are not easy to understand. When he talks about his impending death, the disciples often go into denial. I think we are with them. Most people find it difficult to talk about death. This COVID-19 season has us facing the reality of death. Approaching 80,000 Americans have died from this insidious virus in about two months. Globally, the number is four times that.

 

Jesus senses their trouble and shares this flash of insight: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” He sees beyond and speaks comfort and hope. He is on a journey with a destination in sight. Impending suffering can serve to clarify things.

 

Maybe Jesus is assuming too much of them when he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” I am confident that Thomas is not the only one wondering what Jesus is meaning. But it is Thomas who speaks. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” My paraphrase would be something like this. “Jesus, what are you talking about? Do you have a GPS we don’t know about? What way?” I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

Jesus jumps at the opportunity to respond, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The lead word is way, which also translates as road or path. In my faith tradition, John 14:6 has usually been used to exclude people. It has been written on big signs and held aloft in stadiums at sporting events, hoping the camera will scan it and stop on it. That will make the sign holder feel like a good witness. The message seems to be, if you believe in Jesus as I do, you’re in; if you don’t you’re out. It has been used to say to all other faith systems, you’re dead wrong. John 14:6; end of discussion. That is a misreading. Jesus isn’t saying who is right and who is wrong, or who is in and who is out. He is saying who he is. A 14th century commentator on this passage wrote, “He himself is the way, and in addition he is the lodging on the way, and he is its destination.” (p. 352, IVP NT Commentary on John, by Rodney A. Whitacre) That resonates with me. In my words, Jesus is saying that he is the road, the path, the way to God’s truth and life. And that he is not some GPS system or road map, but our living guide. And on the journey of following him, he is not only the path, he is also our rest stops on the way, our roadside inns and sheltered lean-tos. And at the culmination of this journey, he will greet and welcome us: he is our road, our truth, and our life. I find Jesus’ words here inclusive rather than exclusive. He uniquely reveals God to us, the God who loves us and longs to welcome us. This is a relational journey, not a spatial one, and Jesus is at the heart of it.

 

We can thank Thomas for getting Jesus to say what he and we need to hear. Thomas was ever curious and willing to question. Don’t throw stock religious answers at Thomas; he will see right through them. I love that Jesus never once upbraided or silenced Thomas. Jesus loves this Thomas with his curiosity and bold discipleship. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

One year ago this week Rachel Held Evans died, not yet 40 years old. She was so much like Thomas: curious, questioning, seeking. Not accepting pious, party line answers. Like Rachel Held Evans, I was raised in a stream of Christianity in which questions were not welcomed. Thomas was an embarrassment. No one said that, but it was so because he dared ask questions. Evans wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” (Rachel Held Evans, “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”) At Christ’s table there is always a seat for Thomas—and for you and me. Who of us merits a seat on the discipleship bus? Who of us earned our way?

 

A poem written by Matt Chandler (published in “Relevant” magazine) speaks for me.

“What made me love Christ wasn’t that all of a sudden I started figuring out how to do life.

What made me love Christ is that when I was at my worst, when I was at my lowest point,

when I absolutely could not clean myself up and there was nothing anybody could do with me, right at that moment, Christ said, ‘I’ll take that one. That’s the one I want.’”

 

Here we are this morning on this discipleship bus, that same bus with Thomas on it. Are we the right people to be on this bus? You bet. God loves to have people like Thomas and you and me on this bus. Jesus, you are the way, the road, the path to God’s truth and abundant life. Lead on, Lord Jesus.

 

 

 

Jogging in America

I jog most every morning, shortly after I awake. It is a prayer exercise for me. I don’t wear ear buds and listen to books or music or workout stuff. While I am an extrovert, this is quiet time for me. In this COVID-19 season, I avoid getting near any other person, though I don’t see many out in the early morning. I don’t love jogging, but I like the solitude it offers me—and I keep thinking it is making me a little healthier, physically and spiritually. I like the discipline of a prayer jog before breakfast.

 

When I go jogging, I don’t think for a moment that I will possibly become a target. I am a white male, an old white male. The neighborhoods in which I jog are majority white. People seeing me jogging aren’t filled with fear, at least not in the way they might be if they see a young, black male jogging. I do not raise suspicions by jogging.

 

The United States has learned in the last few days about a young, black man named Aumaud Arbery. He was shot to death while jogging two and a half months ago in southeastern Georgia. Maybe that made the local news for a day in that area, but it didn’t go further. For 74 days, no one was arrested. Now two white men, a father and son, have been arrested. Several law officials recused themselves from the case, because one of the alleged murderers is a former police officer in that department. And his son, the other alleged murderer, has worked with adult children of other law enforcement officials. It kind of feels like the system is taking care of its own.

 

No arrests were made for 74 days. Then a video went viral and caught the attention of the nation. Rather suddenly, Georgia law enforcement arrested two men. Why, after 74 days? If that video hadn’t become public, do we think any arrests would ever have been made? After all, Arbery was a young, black man. That day, February 23, 2020, he was unarmed and jogging at midday. In broad daylight. Not bothering anyone. He was guilty of being a young, black man jogging, presumably where white people lived. How dare he. Is it coincidence that after 74 days of no arrests, a whistle-blowing video clip is made public and the law seems to know whom to arrest right away?

 

When I go jogging, I don’t even think my life is in danger. If I go for a short drive and forget to bring my ID, I don’t even think I’ll get in trouble. I am a white male in a country in which it is safer to be a white male. The justice system favors white people over black people or other people of color. The justice system favors the wealthy over the poor. A wealthy, guilty person generally gets a better break from the law than a poor, innocent person. I don’t need to pull out the statistic in this brief reflection. They are everywhere evident. Look how capital punishment is meted out. Look how prison sentences are determined. Look at a nation that finally elects a brilliant black man to its highest office, a man of integrity, and then millions of its people question his citizenship. Look at a nation that needed a bloody five-year uncivil war to deal with its longstanding institution of the slavery of black people for economic purposes. And when that war finally ended, a century of Jim Crow laws and public lynchings of black people began. Our lofty ideal of justice being blind is not our reality.

 

I am a child of this nation and its terrible legacy of racism. Growing up in Los Angeles, my parents followed the pattern called “white flight.” (I say it with shame. My parents were wonderful, loving people, but this reality was unmistakable.) When people of color, mainly blacks, moved into our neighborhood, we moved out. Because property values would fall, of course. And the schools would decline. I am a child of white privilege. My path in American life has been easier than it is for blacks and other people of color. There is no arguing this; it is so.

 

I saw a video message from Pastor Bryan Wilkerson of Grace Chapel, Lexington MA, earlier today. He too is a jogger and a white male. He too is now jogging with Aumaud Arbery on his heart. He quoted from Isaiah 59:14-16:

So justice is driven back,
    and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
    honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
    and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene….

 

This morning when I went jogging, it was with a deep awareness that my life is not on the line when I go jogging, because I am a white person. And it was with heaviness of heart at the death of Aumaud Arbery. Will there be no one to intervene?

Swinging Jesus

[This message was delivered in virtual fashion for Gates Presbyterian Church on May 3, 2020, the fourth Sunday of Easter. Hence, you will note my play on gates and Gates. This can also be viewed on the Gates Presbyterian channel on YouTube.]

 

I like gates. And I love Gates. I mean, I like gates and I love Gates Presbyterian Church. In John 10, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. But he also identifies himself as the gate. That has me thinking about gates. I like gates, except not always. I have trouble with the idea of gated communities.

 

I don’t like about the concept of gated communities when it means wealthy people live inside and they don’t want the wrong people to enter. We don’t want thieves and robbers getting into our homes. I certainly don’t want my home to be robbed. But I am concerned when gates are used to enforce class divisions. That has happened too many times: gates have been used to keep black people out of all-white communities and to keep the rich from having to see the poor. Those gates trouble me.

 

Perhaps no community is more gated than a jail or prison. I have visited people in jails many times. It is always sobering when I stand in front of an iron gate and wait for it to open. An officer presses a button and there is a buzz of electric current. I walk through the iron gate and hear it close with a loud thud behind me. I am aware that I am inside a gate that doesn’t swing to let natural movement in and out. When my visit is finished, I walk back to that gate and stand again waiting for it to open. I hear that buzz opening the iron gate and I walk through it and hear it close loudly behind me. I like gates that swing both ways, letting animals and people go in and out. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church, a community with a swinging gate, letting us go in and out, finding rest and recreation, nourishment and nurture, community and communion.

 

Ask most people that have read John 10 how Jesus identifies himself there and they will say “the good shepherd.” That is correct, but there is more. Before Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he calls himself the gate. Five times the word gate is used in these ten verses. There is movement from a literal wooden gate to a human gate. Jesus begins by describing the use of the gate: it lets the sheep go in and out. Inside the sheep pen they rest and are relatively safe. They leave the sheepfold, through the gate, to find pasture, to graze, to exercise, to eat and drink. I like gates. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church.

 

Sheep need gated pens, because sheep are vulnerable. They are not stupid animals, as too many sermons have suggested, but they are not endowed with much to defend themselves. Unattended sheep are easy prey for wolves, wild dogs, and any hungry predators. That’s why they need skilled shepherds. Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd; with his rod and staff he protects and comforts us. This despicable COVID virus has reminded us that we are vulnerable. I am told that due to my age, I am in a vulnerable population. I am—and so are you, whatever your age. The human race is a vulnerable population. Always we are a vulnerable population. But COVID-19 has reminded us in a new way. We are vulnerable. Like sheep. Especially sheep without a good shepherd.

 

Understanding Jesus as our good shepherd is fairly easy. Countless stained glass windows and paintings have etched that image on our souls. But when have we seen a stained glass window or painting of Jesus as the gate? He says “I am the gate…” twice in this passage. There is something here, something we must not overlook. An actual shepherd in the Middle East was explaining his work to some tourists. The shepherd was not a Christian and not familiar with this passage. When he showed them the sheepfold, they noticed that there was an opening, but no gate. One tourist asked the shepherd, “where is the gate?” He answered, “I am the gate. When the sheep are in the fold at end of day, I lay myself down across that opening. My body keeps the sheep in and the wolves out. I know the way of the wolves and the sheep trust me.” That is precisely what Jesus is saying. He is not only the shepherd, but he is also the gate of the sheepfold. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

 

Those two actions of coming in and going out are essential to the health of the sheep. And they are essential for our spiritual health. On Sunday mornings we come in and are reminded of who we are and who our shepherd is. Then we go out to serve our shepherd in everyday life. We are honoring that this morning even in this virtual way. Here on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we are reminded that the risen Jesus is our good shepherd and we are the sheep of his pen.

 

This is a liminal time. We hear the word subliminal, but rarely the word liminal. A liminal time is an in-between time, a transitional time. We are between what was and what is coming. Hence it can be scary for some and exiting for others and both for some of us. It is pregnant with the sense of emerging opportunity. Our word liminal comes from a Latin word that means threshold. And what is a threshold, but an opening, a doorway, a gateway. Yes, a gateway.

 

Some have used the phrase “new normal” for this liminal time. When this plague ends, we will find a new normal. But it won’t mean leaving everything behind. It won’t mean throwing out the baby with the bath water. We will leave some of the old behind, but not all. We will be more careful about washing our hands. But we will have learned things, like social technology, that we will continue to use to serve more people in new ways. I look forward to shaping a new normal. Liminal time is opportune time. God is always doing new things. For followers of Jesus, a new normal is never set. Jesus brings us abundant life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is not static and old; it is fresh and new and getting better.

 

Jesus is our shepherd and Jesus is our gate. That will not change. The church is not a building, but as people—that will not change. The nature of life in the sheepfold—that will not change. Acts 2:42 describes that life, what Jesus promises as abundant life. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and community, to the breaking of bread and the prayer.” I am struck by the second and third of the Acts 2:42 distinctives: the community and the breaking of bread. Or we could say, the community and the communion. Our need to quarantine and honor social distancing has put a strain on how we do community and communion, but it hasn’t stopped them. And it can’t stop them.

 

William Willimon tells of a glimpse of community and communion inside prison gates. It was several decades ago in South Africa, when apartheid, the separation of blacks and whites, was the law of the land. A black Methodist pastor was arrested for no reason, except his skin color, and detained in prison without charges or trial. A white Methodist pastor visited him. He brought a small communion kit. The white guard led him to the cell and opened the gate and then closed it. He watched from the other side of the gate as the two, one white and one black, began to break bread together. Then the white pastor looked at the white guard, representing the apartheid government, and spoke to him. “We are Christians and we believe Jesus invites all to his table for communion. Would you join us?” The pastor offered the bread and the cup through the iron bars. Hesitating for a moment, the guard then accepted the gifts and communed with them. Then they held hands and invited him to join them. He did, through the iron bars. They prayed for peace and justice in their country. Three South Africans, two white and one black, one committed to uphold racial separation and two committed to break down the wall of racism, experienced a taste of Jesus breaking down a harsh wall and opening a gate of community. A swinging gate.

 

I like gates that swing. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church. Gates, let’s keep that gate swinging. Jesus is our good shepherd and Jesus is our gate to abundant living. Our swinging gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Had Hoped . . . We Have This Hope

[This message was given, in virtual form, for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester, on the third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020.]

 

“But we had hoped….” Those four little words say so much. But we had hoped that this novel coronavirus would be done by now. But we had hoped that we would be back in our sanctuaries on Easter Sunday. But we had hoped that everything would be better by April 26. My first grandson is graduating from college in one week in Boston—and there will be no commencement ceremony, no trip to one of my favorite cities for a festive occasion. “But we had hoped….” My second grandson is in his final semester at Gates-Chili High School and has not been on campus in over a month. He rehearsed hours and hours for the spring musical, “Les Miserables,” and it has already been postponed once and soon it may be cancelled. We still hope there will be a commencement for his class in late June. “But we had hoped….” I have a new granddaughter born nine weeks ago in this country. But her parents are living in Cambodia for several years for their work. They had planned to return two days ago. My daughter works for the Peace Corps, and the State Department is not letting her, her husband, and their new child return there for the time being. They wait in hope. “But we had hoped….”

 

These two disciples, one named Cleopas and one unnamed, are dealing with hope lost. They are followers of Jesus and know full well what happened in Jerusalem on a dark Friday, for them just two days ago. They are on a long walk, when a third person comes alongside and walks with them. He discerns that they are discouraged and asks them, “What’s going on with you?” Cleopas answers that they have just had their hopes devastated. The stranger, of course, is not a stranger at all, but they don’t know that yet. Jesus, as he so often does, uses questions to draw them out. “What happened? What are you talking about?”

 

Then Cleopas says it: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.” Their world was in devastation and disarray, perhaps a bit like ours is now. For the women that went to the tomb early Sunday morning, for the men huddled in hiding, hope was lost. For these two disciples walking to a village named Emmaus seven miles away, hope is lost. They had tasted sweet hope; now there is a bitter aftertaste. Might as well go on a long walk; anything to get away from Jerusalem, city where hopes are dashed and prophets killed.

 

The risen Lord keeps showing up in such unexpected places. Remember when at the end of the Super Bowl, the most valuable player, still on the field, would be asked, “Now that you’ve won the Super Bowl, where are you going?” The answer: “I’m going to Disney World.” (Doesn’t that sound good right now?) Just hours ago Jesus walked out of a grave. “Hey, Jesus, now that you are risen from the dead where are you going?” “I’m going to Emmaus. Then I guess I will go back to Jerusalem. There I will enter a locked room and announce my presence to some fear-filled disciples. Then I might take a trip back to Galilee.” Note where he doesn’t go. He doesn’t go the Temple, the center of religious life in Israel. He doesn’t go to Pilate’s courtroom, where justice wasn’t done. He doesn’t go to Rome to show the emperor that he is risen and he alone is Lord. He doesn’t go to Athens to meet with the great philosophers. No. He goes to ordinary places. Like a village named Emmaus, which is mentioned in the entire Bible once. This shouldn’t surprise us at all. From his birth in little Bethlehem, to his childhood in backwater Nazareth, he has always been honoring the ordinary. He loves to be with ordinary people in ordinary places, revealing extraordinary glimpses of God with us. Here it is a walk with two hope-dashed disciples.

 

I’m a physically active extroverted person, so doing shelter in place isn’t easy for me. It is required for now and I am honoring it. But most days I get out of my house for a pre-breakfast jog, in which I don’t get close to anyone. Later in the day, I often visit local parks, wearing gloves and a mask and avoiding close contact with anyone. As I jog or walk, I try to notice little glories of nature: early wildflowers. Geese. Ducks. A swan. Blossoms and blooms. Babbling brooks. I pray that I will attentive to all that surrounds me—and that I will be seeing Jesus all around me. In nature. In other persons. And I pray for whatever and whomever comes to mind. I think I do my best praying when I am moving. I like that Easter day had Jesus moving. Walking. Visiting old friends.

 

It makes me happy that Jesus on his resurrection day goes for a long walk. It is interesting that these two disciples don’t recognize him. But neither did Mary Magdalene when Jesus spoke directly to her next to an empty tomb. I don’t know exactly what it means when scripture says, “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Theologically, I know that God must open the eyes of our understanding. Still, it mystifies me that they don’t recognize Jesus, walking and talking with them. I think there are two kinds of seeing. One is merely at the physical level: eyesight. The other is at a deeper level. Heart-sight. Soul-sight. Perceptive sight. These two disciples clearly see a stranger walking with them. But at a deeper level, they do not perceive who that stranger is. After all, they had hoped—and what happened in Jerusalem dashed their hope.

 

Hope is powerful. I believe in hope. 1 Corinthians 13 ends with these words: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three.” Hope is crucial for living. Without hope, life is empty and stale. In the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” there is memorable scene when one prisoner says to another, “Hope is a dangerous thing.” Yes, hope is dangerous. It can leave us discouraged at times. Like those two disciples. But I wouldn’t choose to live without hope. Whatever discouragement we may experience, it won’t last. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5: “… but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….”

 

 

Hospitals in the metro New York area that have been dealing with COVID-19 patients have started playing hope-filled music, streaming through the corridors and rooms. Staff and patients hear songs like, “Here Comes the Sun,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Can’t Stop Believin’,” “Lean on Me,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Rise Up.” They draw hope to keep them going through trying times. That just gets me singing about my hope: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” It keeps me singing, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide, strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside. Great is they faithfulness.”

Hope is not the same as optimism. I like optimism. I always think my team is going to win. I always think I will get final Jeopardy right. But my teams don’t always win. And I don’t always get final Jeopardy right. Hope is so much more than sunny optimism. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….” Our hope is not wishful thinking. It is not all happy thoughts and positive words. It is hope anchored in Jesus and his resurrection. This hope takes us through suffering and discouragement.

 

They had hoped…. And their hope is realized. They arrive at Emmaus. Something both ordinary and extraordinary happens. Listen to Luke telling it: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” That sounds like Holy Communion to me. Jesus has instituted the supper just three full days before, on the Thursday we call Maundy. And here he is, having come through the most extreme suffering, the most excruciating death, and on the day of his rising he is breaking bread with friends and opening their eyes to hope realized.

“But we had hoped….” Their hope was rightly placed. Jesus was walking with them, even when they didn’t know it was he. Jesus is walking with us, even when they don’t think he is. He is always Emmanuel, God with us. The risen Lord is always walking with us. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….”