Last week, we started a new sermon focus for Eastertide, which is the period after Easter and before Pentecost. Alan began by focusing on Hope as a Cause of Life. This week, our scripture brings out another cause of life: Coherence, or the idea of things making logical sense.
What a day to focus on coherence—during this time in our lives when very little makes logical sense.
All of the structures and rhythms and schedules we relied on just two months ago are now irrelevant during this season.
Last week, I went to my office at the church to get some books and resources, and it was the first time I had been back since March 15th. I collected all the stuff I needed in a bag, and then before I left, I went and just stood in the youth room where we spend most of our time.
I looked at all the couches—it’s hand me down furniture that’s torn and well loved. One of the couches has the bottom of the seat broken out, so when you sit down, you pretty much sink all the way to the floor.
But right now, there’s no one sitting on those couches.
I looked at the white board that still had notes on it from the last Wednesday night game we played all together in one room, back on March 11th. It was the youth working in small groups to re-tell famous Bible stories using those little marshmallow Peeps and a handful of supplies as their only props. There was noise, and laughter, and prizes for the winning team.
But right now, that room is silent.
I looked at the place on the wall where, back in January, we hung words we hoped would describe 2020 for us. Things like connected, friendship, happiness, memories, joy, and many more. And I couldn’t help but wonder how we can make sure we create those things in a year that has gone almost entirely virtual.
But right now, that feels difficult.
Maybe you’re experiencing many of the same feelings. Maybe they come from missing the high points of your job or your kid’s school schedule or not being able to visit with grandkids.
And, of course, everything is compounded by the fact that even going to the grocery store is stressful and difficult. We go talk to our neighbors and have to put our lawn chairs on the other side of the street. We watch as the list of cancelled or rescheduled or modified events continues to grow and grow.
Everything is upside down, we’ve lost all coherence, nothing seems to make sense any more.
I imagine this is how the disciples felt after Jesus was murdered and they were hiding in a little room together. Nothing made sense any more—any level of coherence they once had is gone. 12 men, a bunch of amazing women, and dozens more on that next layer of the circle had given everything to follow Jesus. All have literally left their jobs behind. All have left family behind. Then, together, they followed this itinerant rabbi around the Israeli countryside and into Jerusalem listening to him teach and preach and watching him heal and welcome anyone and everyone.
And they settled in to this way of life. They didn’t understand all the pieces—the Gospels make that more than clear—but there was a rhythm, there were set expectations, there was someone to lead them.
And they could trust it.
They expected Jesus to be the one to redeem Israel.
Then one day it’s gone.
They may not have received shelter in place orders, but their government did kill that itinerant rabbi they had been following.
What’s next? The movement is dead. They fear for their lives. Maybe they wonder if they had simply been fooled this whole time. There’s no coherence to anything. Nothing makes logical sense anymore.
Before distancing and quarantine, when things didn’t make sense for us in our lives, what did we do? We tended to retreat, right?
There are two types of retreats. One sees the chaos coming and tries to make sense of things before it arrives. That’s what we try to do with youth retreats, for example. In addition to them being fun, a high point in their faith journey, and a bonding experience, we want to give our youth the tools they need to understand and make sense of the chaos that will come in the future.
The other kind of retreat is re-active. The chaos has found us. Things don’t make sense. So, we leave, we retreat. Then we can ignore the discomfort and we could insulate ourselves from the real issues.
That’s where we find ourselves in this passage of scripture.
It’s been three days. People are starting to give up. Everything they thought they were building is gone, just like that.
Two followers of Jesus from that next layer of disciples are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know why they’re going there—maybe they live there, maybe they work there, maybe they have a beach house there.
Maybe it’s where they go to retreat when the stresses of life get to be too much and they need to check out for a little while.
Frederick Buechner, a famous theologian and preacher, makes the connection between Emmaus and those places we go
or to numb emotions
or to ignore reality.
The language is a little dated, but Buechner says:
[Emmaus is] the place we go in order to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, “Let the whole thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.”… Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that [people] have had—ideas about love and freedom and justice—have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish [people] for selfish ends.”
Before distancing and quarantine, we were able to ignore that twisting by retreating to wherever our personal Emmaus was.
These travelers are just like us. They don’t know how to bring coherence into a world that no longer makes sense, so they give in to the temptation to step away.
To make things more complicated, the two travelers are living in a world where, on the one hand, everything they thought they had been building with Jesus has been shattered. And, on the other hand, some of the women have reported seeing Jesus earlier that very morning. It’s all too much, so for whatever reason, they leave the place where the action is to retreat to Emmaus.
Jesus comes up and joins them on their journey, but, of course, they don’t recognize him. Jesus asks, “What are y’all talking about?”—And I’m pretty sure the original Greek does have Jesus saying, “Y’all” there.
According to the text, the two men stop walking and look sad.
Then the disciples explain what they think they know about what’s going on.
What do you think their explanation was like?
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
What a statement. We had hoped!
But, obviously, we were wrong.
We thought we had something going. We thought we were on the right track. We thought what we were building was good. Things used to make sense…
And if you can believe it, the turn in this story, the grace in this story starts with the phrase:
“Oh, how foolish you are.”
When Jesus explains to them all the ways scripture points to a radical shift in understanding and how that WAS fulfilled by Jesus’ murder and resurrection, they realize:
They’re not going back to normal.
After they recognize Jesus when he sits down to share a meal with them, he disappears from their presence, and they race back to Jerusalem. They’re not going back to the way things were in the old world, but the new normal they had been experiencing the last three days isn’t reality forever either.
They’re on the cusp of starting something brand new and incredible.
It was already evening, but they make that 7 mile return trip to Jerusalem anyway.
Now, we live in an age of cars, so 7 miles isn’t that far. But I’ve been doing a lot of walking in my neighborhood the last several weeks and a decent walking pace for me at 6-1 with long legs is about 15 minutes a mile. These men were walking back to Jerusalem in the dark, in sandals, on dirt roads, after having already walked the first 7 miles to get to Emmaus. We’re looking at a two hour return trip easy. Maybe more. They knew this was important.
Jesus explains to them that, even though they thought they understood what truly mattered before, they didn’t. Their intentions were good, they were following Jesus, they wanted to understand, but they couldn’t get passed the world’s expectations of what a messiah would look like and how that should impact their own lives.
The world that will come will be very different than the world they left behind, and this is their chance to make something amazing happen.
How familiar does that feel right now?
Now, don’t hear me wrong. I’m NOT saying God caused Covid-19. I am NOT saying this is some sort of divine judgement. I don’t believe any of that.
I AM saying, this can be a chance for a REAL wake up call.
I think back to that Frederick Buechner quote I read earlier.
Right now, there’s a push to reopen the places we used to retreat to, even before it may be the right time for that. But, instead of again allowing us to retreat and ignore and dull the discomfort, maybe this is our chance to participate in building something new and something better.
There were things we used to say made sense because they had simply been the practice for a long time.
There were things we used to say made sense because they benefitted us personally.
There were things we used to say made sense because it allowed someone else to do the hard thinking for us.
I don’t know about you, but when all this is actually over, I don’t want to go back to the old world.
I want to help build another “new normal”—a better “new normal.”
I don’t want to return to a life where being overly busy is held as a badge of honor despite the toll it takes on our health and our families.
I don’t want to return to a life where corporations take advantage of the very workers we now consider “essential” just so they can turn a bigger profit.
I don’t want to return to a life where we all just retreat to our personal Emmauses so we can ignore the real issues.
Dr. Alan Culpepper, the former Dean at McAfee School of Theology and a renowned scholar on the Gospels, says, “The risen Lord meets us on the road to our Emmauses, in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives, and in the places to which we retreat when life is too much for us. [This Emmaus] story warns us, however, that the Lord may come to us in unfamiliar guises, when we least expect [it].”
How perfectly does that build upon the Buechner quote? And it’s true during a pandemic, too, even if our usual places of retreat aren’t available.
God is not disguised as a virus, but God is definitely helping us make better sense of this world.
How are you being called to help build a better world for all people when the pandemic passes? What will be the thing that continues to make sense to you when all this is over? And what do you want to help build for the next new normal?
Is it more time with family? Fewer things on your schedule? Perhaps a new understanding of exactly who is considered “essential” in our society?
Maybe this is our chance to really reconsider how healthcare is done in our country?
Maybe this is our chance to take a fresh look at the criminal justice system.
Maybe it’s a more compassionate immigration policy, or taking women in leadership roles seriously, or maybe it’s changing the conversation from equality to equity.
The disciples realized that what was coming next wasn’t the old world they thought was working. What came next for them was another “new normal” that sparked the first churches, spread the news of Jesus, shared resources as they were needed, and brought women and slaves into their homes as friends and neighbors.
Whenever this pandemic really ends, we’re going to be looking at a chance for a fresh start. What do we need to leave behind in the old world? What is worth preserving into the next new normal? And what should we be building brand new?
How do we want to make sense of what comes next?
Just like with the disciples, what makes sense to God might be better than what seems to make sense to us.