Sunday, May 4th, 2014 – Third Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-6, Luke 24:13-35
Hymns: “Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”, “Just As I Am”, “He Lives!”
Special Music: “Spirit Wind”, by Casting Crowns
There’s a sneaky little Star Wars reference right in the middle of the sermon, in honor of Star Wars Day. Who can find it?!
“The Call: Looking”
So there’s this video going around the Internet right now. It’s a video of a bunch of guys in their late teens and early twenties. They’re taking a break from work, and during this break, they’re watching last winter’s über-popular Disney movie, Frozen.
Oh, but they’re not just watching it. No, this group of guys is joyously singing along with the movie. The particular video shows them singing along with the movie’s big hit song, “Let It Go”. As the song progresses, they get rowdier and rowdier, and finally, as the song reaches its climax, the guys hit their feet, throwing their hands in the air and singing the lyrics of the song at the top of their lungs.
Did I mention that this group of guys is entirely composed of United States Marines… some of them in uniform, no less?
Seriously, if you haven’t seen this video, it’s absolutely worth the two and a half minutes of your time that the video runs. Just Google “Marines Let It Go”, and you’ll find it.
Sometimes, you find joy in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.
For many of Jesus’ disciples, joy was simply not an option after the Passover the year that Jesus was crucified. This rabbi that they had followed – some of them for three years – had been murdered by the Roman government at the behest of fundamentalist religious leaders. His closest followers had scattered and were in hiding, afraid that they might be next. And even though Jesus had, by now, been resurrected from the grave, we have to remember that in Luke’s account, he hadn’t actually appeared to anybody as yet. The women had spoken with the angels, and Peter had seen the grave cloths, but that was it.
And so on Sunday afternoon, just a few hours after Mary Magdalene was informed that Jesus had been resurrected, two of Jesus’ followers were traveling to a town called Emmaus. They had heard the story that the women who went to the tomb had told, but they were decidedly skeptical. As to why they were leaving Jerusalem, no doubt they were traveling to Emmaus for no less a reason than simply getting out of Dodge before it was them hanging from a roughly hewn pair of cedar beams. As they walked, a stranger approached and wanted to know what they were talking about.
I don’t know about you, but if I were in their shoes, and a stranger came up to me and asked that, given the circumstances, I don’t know that I would’ve said a word, because my first thought would’ve been, “IT’S A TRAP!” But one of them – Cleopas, Luke tells us – asked, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going on?”
What’s been going on.
It’s been a year and a day, now. 366 days.
Yes, a year ago yesterday, May 3rd, 2013, was the day that I turned in my final research project for my master’s degree in divinity. History 790 was the class, Food Culture in the African-American Church, but a year later, I’ll be darned if I can remember the topic of the paper.
That day was a milestone in my life. It was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of work. From that point forward, unless I decided I wanted to get a doctorate, or unless I decided to go into the command track of the Navy Chaplain Corps, I would never again have to take an academic class for a grade. It made me shout hallelujahs to the western North Carolina sky.
Two weeks later, I graduated, and a week after that, I was ordained at Foothills Christian Church back in Phoenix. Riding high, I headed back to North Carolina, expecting that I would be receiving that inevitable call to interview and move on to pastor a church any day now.
Except I didn’t.
Days passed. Weeks. Months.
In late August, I got an email from somebody I had never heard of before – one Rev. William Rose-Heim. He had reviewed my ministry profile, he said, and there was a church in northwest Missouri he wanted me to look into. A link to the church’s profile was included in the email, so, naturally curious, I clicked on it.
Gower Christian Church, the profile said.
My first thought was, what’s a Gower?
My second though was, oh, hey, I lived on Gower Street in Hollywood once upon a time.
My third thought – after pulling it up on Google Maps – was, oh dear, that’s in the middle of nowhere.
But nonetheless, I wrote back to Rev. Rose-Heim and said, sure, I’m interested!
And, well, we all know how THAT turned out.
Sometimes, you find life in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.
It was life that concerned the two disciples on the Emmaus road that Sunday afternoon. Sure, they were likely concerned about their own lives, but after deciding that this stranger they had encountered on the road was, in fact, not a Roman wolf in sheep’s clothing, they decided to open up to him. Jesus’ own life was the topic that most concerned them on that afternoon. As they followed him, they had come to have great expectations of him – expectations that he would be the one to redeem Israel, and free them from Rome. Of course, we already know that it’s not the expectations of man that Jesus came to fulfill, but we’ve already done that sermon.
Unfortunately for their expectations, Jesus had, of course, been crucified by Rome, and for them, it was now the third day since that had happened. To make matters worse – at least, to make matters worse in their minds – Jesus’ body was gone. As they explained to this man walking the road with them, some of the women among Jesus’ disciples had gone to prepare the body for embalming that morning, only to discover it gone, and then they came back with the claim that an angel had said Jesus was alive. However, men since time immemorial have, for whatever reason, had difficulty trusting the words of women, even though women have been scientifically proven to generally be more rational and more logical than men. These men were no different, and so expressed their doubts to their traveling companion. What he said to them next was probably not what they were expecting.
Just not what you’d expect.
There’s a driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, by the name of Kurt Busch. To say that Mr. Busch has had a rough time of it in his career would be putting it kindly. He has more talent in his pinky finger than most NASCAR drivers have in their entire careers, but he also has a temper that’s approximately as stable as hundred year old dynamite and burns at about the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor. His talent has landed him rides with some of the most well-known names in racing – Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Mario Andretti just to name a few – as well as winning him a Sprint Cup championship in 2004, but his temper has led him to run afoul of a wide variety of people, including Roush and Penske, the Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Department, and the NASCAR powers-that-be.
In late 2011, Kurt was at the lowest point of his career. He had been given the boot by Roger Penske, his wife had divorced him, and he was now driving for a team that ran on a shoestring budget and was owned by James Finch, who is widely considered to be one of the more, shall we say, eccentric owners in NASCAR history. But at the same time, things were beginning to occur in his life to turn it around.
Not long after his divorce, Kurt had started dating Patricia Driscoll, the executive director of the Armed Forces Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping wounded veterans and their families. She has a son, Houston, from a previous relationship, and it seems that having Houston in his life caused Kurt’s heart to, in the words of Dr. Seuss, “grow three sizes”. Over the course of two years, Kurt’s temper began to cool, he began to think and live more rationally, and in late 2013, Gene Haas, the billionaire owner of the Haas CNC Machine Tool Company and part-owner of the Stewart-Haas racing team, offered Kurt a ride in one of his cars. It would be top-tier equipment, and with sponsorship coming solely from Haas CNC, Kurt wouldn’t have to worry about keeping anybody happy but his boss.
So it was that a few weeks ago, in Martinsville, Virginia, Kurt won his first race in two and a half years, beating defending champion Jimmie Johnson on a track where Johnson is normally unbeatable. There are a multitude of inspirational pictures of Kurt, seemingly the happiest man alive, following his victory, but perhaps one of the most enduring images is a picture that was captured of him with his now-fiancée, Patricia, and his soon-to-be-stepson, Houston. In it, there is no anger in Kurt’s face, no rage in his eyes, as there had been for so long. Instead, there is just happiness, and joy.
Sometimes, you find redemption in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.
As we know, the traveling companion of the two men on the Emmaus road was indeed Jesus himself, and it was redemption that was on his mind as he traveled with these men. Redemption of the story, redemption of the Scriptures – they needed to have their eyes opened. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Jesus asked them, reminding them that he himself had taught on more than one occasion that he would have to be handed over to the authorities and suffer at the hands of human beings before he could be glorified by God.
Now, like any good preacher, Jesus then took his thesis and expounded upon it. Indeed, he did with those two disciples as they walked to Emmaus what we mere mortal preachers have to take several hours to do each week – he provided the two disciples with an exegesis of his own words, using passages from the Old Testament to back up his claims, going all the way back to Moses and running through all of the prophetic Scriptures about him.
As they reached Emmaus, Jesus was going to keep going – these two men still didn’t know who he was. But since it was getting late, they convinced him to stay and have dinner with them. And as they were about to learn, breaking bread with somebody you don’t know can make all the difference in the world.
Not quite three years ago, I was at a party prior to the beginning of my second year of classes at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. A sort of informal beginning-of-the-year party for the Div School, a good number of students were present – including some of the incoming first year class, jokingly called “fresh meat”, “new victims”, etc.
It was an enjoyable evening. I had made a number of friends at Wake Div during my first year there, so I bounced from small group of people to small group of people, catching up with people I hadn’t seen in three months, hearing about their summers, mingling in general. I even ran into a fellow Disciple seminarian from Vanderbilt, one whom I had just seen at General Assembly a few weeks before – it turned out that he was dating the sister of the Wake Div student at whose house the party was being held!
Small world, right?
Anyway, after a few conversations, I decided to break bread myself, and momentarily retreated to a table near the house’s door, where snacks and drinks were kept. Picking out a few items to munch on, I was standing there when one of the incoming first years approached. Remembering that I was now a returning student and I had a certain responsibility to make these new students feel welcome, I struck up a conversation with this student. It turned out that we had a few classes in common, which I’m still to this day not sure if that put relief or trepidation in the new student’s heart.
Anyway, as the conversation naturally wrapped itself up, I decided that I should probably get the name of the first member of the Wake Div Class of 2014 I had ever talked to, and so I asked her.
“Caitie,” she said. “Caitie Smith.”
That night, I broke bread with somebody I didn’t know at all, and as luck would have it, I’m marrying her in twenty-seven days.
Sometimes, you find love in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.
And so, as the two disciples and Jesus sat down to eat, it was love that was now Jesus’ concern – his love for these followers, for all the children of God. And as they prepared to eat, he finally revealed himself to them. He blessed the meal that they were about to eat, and broke the bread – and instantly, they recognized him. It was the resurrected Jesus, sitting with them at the table – the first disciples who saw him after his return from the grave.
As soon as they recognized him, though, he disappeared. You see, now that they knew that it was him, that he was indeed resurrected, he had other places to go, other people to see. They now knew, and it was up to them to spread the word.
And spread the word they did. Leaving AT THAT MOMENT, even though it was dark, they made the trip back to Jerusalem. They sought out the apostles, and told them what had happened. Jesus is indeed alive, they said. He has been resurrected in glory!
To think, they almost missed it. These disciples, traveling to Emmaus, almost missed that they had traveled the road with Jesus. They didn’t know for sure that he was resurrected. All they knew was that he had been crucified, and they certainly weren’t expecting to see him. But as soon as they welcomed him into their community, indeed, into their home, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him for who he truly was – Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
And as those two disciples might attest, sometimes, you find God in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.