Encounter: Feeling the Burn

Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 31, 2022

 

 Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 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?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Let us pray: Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 I got the news of my grandfather’s death on a day that was already overcast. I zipped off a quick, stiff lipped email letting a few people know. Though I barely let myself know this, it became clear in my disappointment, that I had hoped… I had hoped this 92 year old man would pull through, even live forever. As soon as I could change clothes, I broke into a sprint. I hit the trail, the bike path that is at the bottom of our hill where I have pounded out joys and frustrations countless times over the years. Others were on the trail, but I couldn’t see their faces. I may have cried or just let my heart burn for a while. A text popped up on my phone, “Sorry friend.” I took a deep breath, feeling cared for. And then I stepped into a giant puddle of water, which soaked my shoe. Shaking it off, I squished along, accepting a physical annoyance to mark the aggravation of my soul, and then another text popped up, “Love you. Want a casserole?” I laughed. My spirit perked up! Not a second later, my dry shoe stepped into a huge pile of dog poop. My rage turned against an entire world of dog people, “Who does that? Seriously!” My run was over. I gave up, turned around, and trailing behind me was a set of footprints. One faint but stained with poop, and the other stark and wet. I envisioned a lovely photograph of those footprints, and in cursive lettering, the quote, “Why, Lord, during the most trying chapters of my life are there these two pathetic footprints? Isn’t that when you were supposed to be carrying me? And then I imagined my Lord responding, ‘What, and step in the poop too?’”

Laughter, that carbonated holiness as Ann Lamott calls it, inevitably overtook me. And I walked home, weeping and laughing and limping the rest of the way like a lunatic.

Maybe for you it wasn’t sodden shoes and sad news. But I suspect everyone here knows thudding disappointment. Disappointment with a job or a loved one or a political reality or a trusted leader or your own body. Even disappointment with God. You know the ramped-up expectations, the time invested, the anticipation, and the crushing let down. Sometimes hope followed by disappointment invades us, unbidden, when we were doing just fine in our lives. Other times it seems to follow us, that little dark cloud, making us paranoid that this is a pattern for us.

It’s that disappointment that Cleopas and the other felt on the road to Emmaus, seven miles away from Jerusalem, even though scholars have no geographical record of the place. I suppose Emmaus might be the name for “anywhere but Jerusalem.” Where we go when we have to go but have nowhere in particular to go. It reminds me of the sullen masses of Nats fans flooding the exits after a Drew Storen meltdown, if you remember those. The disciples were crestfallen. Defeated. Heartbroken.

And of course in their rehashing of it all, someone else was walking along with them but heartbreak is blinding, and “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” That makes sense to me. A grieving mom told me that a few weeks after her son died, she got utterly lost in Target, a place she had been almost weekly for the past 10 years. Suddenly, it was like a foreign land.

This stranger inquires what is going on, and the text says, “They stood still, looking sad.” It’s that wordless pause, where they take a breath in as if it might hold in the tears too. They may feel exhausted by this stranger’s intrusion, but they feel catharsis coming.

Fine, if you don’t know, you must know. There it is, the sarcasm, the edge of rage. They spoke of a prophet, mighty in word and deed before God, whom they had followed. And now, it was over. Brutally, totally. But they finally said it out loud… “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” We fell for it. We were in. Hook line and sinker. But we must have been wrong.

Now, if a team wants to make their supervisor feel awful, they simply have to say, “We had heard such great things about you, Jim, thought you could really turn things around here. But we won’t make that mistake again.” And there is nothing worse than hearing a parent say, “I’m not mad at you… I’m just disappointed.” The disciples had trusted him. They had staked their lives on him. And now, they were adrift on a sea of loss, three days gone and the hard reality sinking in.

And they felt singed even more by the bright light of false hope. “And our women, well, they astounded us with this crazy notion that he was alive again.” Cleopas and his friend were too exhausted for this head fake. After all, when you are going through Hell, you’re supposed to keep on going. It’s like John Cleese said, “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t take (John Cleese, Clockwise. And profound gratitude to Sam Wells, “We Had Hoped,” May 4, 2014). His words were an inspiration for this sermon. They had already lost their future. They could not spare their sanity. They had seen too much already to burn energy on more empty things, even empty tombs. So they walked on, towards God knows where.

This story is my favorite in the Bible for many reasons, but mostly because of what happens next. To be sure, Jesus shows himself to be no kind of grief counselor, with his lengthy Bible exercise and the way he scolds them for their dim faith. If any of us did that to a grieving person, we might get the bird, and I don’t mean the bird of peace. But we are not Jesus, and this is not a story about grief counseling. This is a story about resurrection, Jesus revealed to people who were in no way expecting that to happen.  People, perhaps, like us.

First, Jesus is revealed to people when they realize that the sad story they are telling themselves is not the right story, not the full story. The actual story is one of God’s presence and power and constant surprising grace, something complete and marvelous even as it completely messes with us.

Second, this is a story about Jesus revealed to people in the breaking of the bread, something we do month after month because disappointment can be so blinding that we have to rely upon other senses, taste, touch, smell, to notice the risen Christ.

Third, this is a story about heart burn, and what I mean is the way the disciples move from sullen despair into a smoldering sense of their purpose. When you realize that perhaps loss is where the key teaching was to be found. They start asking, “Did our heart not burn inside our chests when he opened the scriptures to us?” They run to Jerusalem, and they meet up with others who also have powerful stories to tell.

So if you notice there are three key movements in this story: there is a revelation of Jesus in the long love story of God, there is communion, and there is mission. Sounds like church, right?

And the best news is that this still happens. For those of you who have been disappointed that God hasn’t followed the script with you, remember, resurrection is always a gift, always a surprise. It’s never something we could manufacture through devotion. The Pharisees tried to manufacture grace through devote then too, and they were unsuccessful. But that also means resurrection is not something that could be stomped out by policy or deepest doubt or the strongest armies. The Romans tried to stomp it out then too and were unsuccessful.

As we walk this road together, we ask, did our hearts not burn inside our chests when we sang together at our loved one’s funeral? When we realized the sad story we were telling ourselves wasn’t the only story? When we went from feeling useless and lost to repurposed and called upon with more meaningful work to do?

Did our hearts not burn inside our chests when tears popped out as we sang a hymn that seemed tuned to our lives? when we saw tables full of food for ECHO where days before they had been bare? When a Godly Play child told us some truth about God that seemed given from above?

Did our hearts not burn inside our chests when our child was baptized, when the prayer seemed to be speaking directly to us, when someone showed up at the hospital to visit us just when loneliness was seeping up our limbs?

God is present to us still, feeds us still, startles us with purpose still, so our main job is to walk this path together, this messy sloppy trail of life together, and pay attention to the ones walking beside us, because they just might be the way resurrection is made known to us today.

Amen.