The Sunday Sermon: walking towards the light

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

Today is the third Sunday in these 50 days of Easter. By now, if you’ve been attending worship, you have heard Matthew’s story of how the risen Christ appeared to the two Marys; you’ve heard John’s story of how Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Savior for the gardener; and you’ve heard John’s story of how Jesus appeared to the disciples in a locked room on the evening of the first Easter Day, and again a week later when Thomas was with them.

Today’s Gospel is still focused on Easter Day, and now it’s Luke’s turn to tell us his Easter story. Early in the morning, Luke tells us, the women went to the tomb and saw a vision of angels who shared the good news; they didn’t see Jesus himself. But when the women went to the disciples with the angels’ announcement, the men didn’t believe them. Now it is evening and two of those disciples are walking home, dejected, grieving, deeply disappointed, wondering what the future would hold, now that their hopes have been dashed. The women’s announcement seemed like an idle tale to them – after all, the courts didn’t value the evidence of women, so why should they? Like Thomas, these disciples would believe only the evidence of their own eyes.

Brain scientists tell us that we see what we expect to see. Our brains fill in gaps in what our eyes observe, and conversely we see what our brain tells us to see. Maybe you’ve seen the experiment where you are instructed to count passes in a basketball game; after the video ends, the researcher asks if you saw the gorilla. What gorilla? You told me to watch a basketball game and that’s what I saw. When the video is rerun you see that a guy in a gorilla suit walked right through the middle of the game. How could you have missed him? Your brain failed to recognize a gorilla because you were set up only to see the basketball game.
These two disciples, Cleopas and his companion – maybe his spouse – were deep in grief. They knew that Jesus was dead. They had discounted the women’s story, so they had no reason to think that the stranger who caught up with them on the road might be Jesus come back from the dead. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Hey guys, it’s me – I’m back.” It’s almost like he plays with them, scolding them gently for their lack of understanding, teaching them the whole salvation story that has led to this moment, and even turning away as they reach their destination.

It’s only when they invite him in, when they share their meal with him, that he permits them to recognize him. He allows them to continue in their grief and uncertainty, giving them the opportunity to move through their loss, to tell their story, to reach their safe haven and find comfort in the ordinary tasks of preparing a meal, before he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with them, just as he had done on the night before he was arrested. And in this moment, after the teaching, after the grief-filled journey, after the hospitality and the sharing, in this moment they realize who has been with them all along. And in a beautiful turn of phrase Luke tells us that they rose up – he actually uses the term for resurrection – and they rushed back to the city to share the good news that they now, finally, believed. The Lord is risen indeed!

In all the years I have been preaching on this story, I think this is the first time that I haven’t preached it in the context of the Eucharist. It makes my heart hurt that we cannot share Communion today, after hearing how Jesus comes to us and is made known in the breaking of the bread. But it also offers an opportunity to look at the story from a new angle, and in this strange time of Covid-19 we are being invited to look at all kinds of things from new angles. We have all gone through an experience of profound loss over the last couple of months. We have missed our friends, despaired over our retirement savings, worried about our vulnerable loved ones, been disappointed by the endless cancellations, raged at the inconsistent messages of the media. We have lost a way of life that, even if it wasn’t ideal, was at least familiar.

Two months ago we were walking a well-worn path towards Lent and Easter, as familiar to us as the path from Jerusalem to Emmaus was for Cleopas and his companion. But that path took some twists and turns, and it became a path of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, of loneliness and grief. Suddenly, this Lent wasn’t just about giving up luxuries, it was about giving up our core communities, our dreams, even our jobs. And when Easter came, we were still on that same path. Like those two disciples, Easter had come but we were still in the dark place.

When you walk a path that you have known well, you tend to stop noticing details along the way. You might be focused on getting from A to B, automatically avoiding the uneven pavement here, the overgrown hedge there. And then something happens that makes you pay attention. The two disciples were walking a road they had walked many times before, but this time there was someone with them, someone who was opening their eyes to the story behind the Messiah, someone who was teaching them to appreciate God’s goodness and mercy in a new way, someone who was leading them gently through the darkness to the light.

I have been walking my neighborhood every day since the stay-home order began. I find that I am noticing some things I haven’t seen before. The view across Mission Valley is much clearer because there is less pollution from traffic. I am present to the natural world in a new way, because there is time for me to pay attention. I see details of the flowers; I see the hummingbirds. My sister, who has been with me for six weeks, has been my mentor in this: she is an artist and she paints the flowers we see each day, catching the details of their beauty. She has planted the tops of carrots and the roots of spinach, so we can watch them grow. She has caught wild yeast from the air and made sourdough bread.

There is so much to observe and enjoy that I wasn’t noticing before. Maybe this is where God is for me in this time, walking beside me and showing me the glory of creation. Maybe God is somewhere in this strange world of the internet, hovering behind the faces on Zoom, quietly teaching us about the meaning of community and sacrament through their absence, teaching us to be faithful through loss and change, to find new ways to recognize the risen Lord as we break bread at home, as we spend time alone, as we adjust our family relationships.

Today we cannot take, bless, break, and share the bread and wine of Communion. But we can know Christ and make him known in our gathering as his body, in the ministry that we offer each other and our neighbors, and in the hope we share of a new and better world on the other side of this. Risen Lord, be known to us in the fellowship and prayers of your church.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

April 26, 2020
The Third Sunday of Easter and Creation Care Sunday
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges

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