3rd Sunday after Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
They were simply walking down the road, these disciples, and Jesus came and walked with them. They were in that numbing, aching stage of grief, where you say to yourself, ”This is really happening to me, to us? This can’t be happening. This IS really happening. To us.” In their grief Jesus came and walked with them. They were just going home to start life over again after their hopes for new life had been destroyed and Jesus came and walked with them. They were ordinary folk, not in the inner circle of disciples that we have hear named throughout all four of the canonical gospels, and Jesus came and walked with them. Though they did not recognize him, he walked with them, talked with them, listening to their grief and fear. In unrecognized, yet extraordinary, circumstances, Jesus came and walked and talked these two regular people all the way home. And then came in to stay with them.
There are lines of poetry that have stuck with my soul since a Modern Poetry class my Senior year in college. “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow, I feel my fate in what I cannot fear, I learn by going where I have to go.” ["The Waking” by Theodore Roethke can be found at poetryfoundation.com.] From Theodore Roethke’s enigmatic poem. “The Waking,” I have heard the echoes of those words over and over in the experiences of my life. “I learn by going where I have to go.” I have made plans and carried many of them through, choosing schools and jobs and life partners. Yet the plans always take unexpected turns or dissolve in to new plans along the way. Life always seem to give us unexpected routes on the “planned” journey. Change happens. We learn by going where we have to go.
It is an oft repeated metaphor that life is a journey. I would go further to say that life walking with Jesus is a pilgrimage. And the only way to walk it is to learn by going where you have go. We like to define pilgrimage as an intentional sacred journey toward the Holy. When Hal and I have led pilgrimages, we make very specific plans. Yet it is usually the unplanned moments that make meaning of the journey. You cannot plan the sacred, the inbreaking of the Holy. You can only make room, make space, for it.
If we think of life with Jesus as a pilgrimage, why doesn’t it feel more sacred in that elevated, “stained glass window, unseen choir singing ‘Ahhhh!’” sense of the word? Life more often just feels messy because life is messy! My friends, in case you haven’t noticed, the messy is sacred, because the Holy One holds all of Life. Learning to live in relationships, as a child, as a teen, as an adult of any age, is messy and its sacred. Getting through school at any age feels messy and its sacred. Parenting is messy and its sacred. Choosing a job, advancing a career, as we wrestle with purpose and meaning in life is messy and its sacred. Loving those who love us and those who don’t is messy and its sacred, holy.
Life as a pilgrimage is most like those sacred journeys when the pilgrim sets out simply to follow the Holy Spirit, wherever it might take her. There is not necessarily a specific sacred site for praying as the destination or some sacred mission to fulfill. And if there is, well, plans change and life gets messy. We learn by going where we have to go.
This is the journey the disciples in our gospel story find themselves walking. Plans have changed in a big way. Nothing has turned out as they expected when they headed for Jerusalem to have Passover with Jesus a few days ago. Everything is turned upside down and now what? Their beloved rabbi is dead. This was not in the plans! He was going to be the one to redeem Israel….to make it whole again…to liberate them from the Romans. He was the Messiah! At least that’s what they had thought. Then he was betrayed by the very people who you would think would be following him. He was handed over to be executed as a criminal. Now he’s dead! Isn’t he? What about what those women said they saw?
What else to do but head home? Life does not feel safe. As followers of this one who had been executed as a criminal, were they now suspect? Were their lives in danger? And what about their hopes and dreams? They are dashed. I feel the ache in their hearts, the tiredness in their bones, the confusion in their minds, the fear that seizes their gut. On top of it all they long for their leader, they miss their friend, Jesus. Will the community they had grown together on the pilgrim journey following Jesus through the countryside be completely gone now? How can they go back to their lives before? Nothing feels normal. Will it ever again? And in the midst of all these questions, in the midst of their suffering, on this pilgrim journey home, the Risen Jesus comes unbidden and walks with them.
We had lots of plans for this spring! Trips to take. Sports to play and sports teams to support. Classes to complete. Graduation ceremonies to celebrate and attend. Camps for summertime. New jobs perhaps. Then Covid 19 happened. Now people are dying. People are losing jobs. The economy is uncertain to say the least. School is radically changed as teachers and children scramble to connect on line. Here I am preaching and worshiping with you over Facebook! Our life is full of questions! Is there a destination we are headed towards or is it all just messy? Do we want “normal” back? What do we want in a new “normal?” Which leaders do we trust, do we follow into this new unknown world? Nothing feels very safe anymore. Now what? Is it all dead?
The two disciples had heard rumors of women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb and seen angels and heard that he was not dead. He is alive! We have been through Holy Week and heard the stories of Easter. We know that death is the not the final answer for us as Easter people who follow Jesus the Christ. We know that with our heads…but our hearts are still scared and worried and uncertain. We are walking a road that is unknown. Our plans are all up in the air. It’s very messy! Like our disciples we have been plunged into pilgrimage whether we like it or not! We could sit down and wait till all was clear on the path. But we would never get home that way. Instead, we must learn by going where we have to go.
My friends, the simple truth of this gospel story is that just like the disciples discovered, Jesus, the Risen Christ, is walking along with us on our pilgrim journey. Even when we think we are alone, we are not alone. Christ walks beside us. Will we recognize the presence of the Holy that is always with us in the mess of life’s journey? We wrestle with the frustrations, sorrows, fears of this pandemic journey. We debate the hows and whens of re-opening our communities. In the midst of it all, Jesus, walks along with us listening, teaching, simply being on the journey when we least expect it.
Remember when God’s peace breaks finally through for the two disciples? It’s when their hearts are open as they sit down to share a meal, probably all they have in the house, as they have been gone several days. May we remember to open our hearts to invite the presence of the Risen Christ into the homes of our souls, as well as our literal homes. May we invite the Christ to sit down at the inner tables of our hearts and souls, as well as the our outer kitchen and dining tables to break bread, to share sustenance. As we relinquish control of our resources, share the source of what feeds us, into the hands of the Holy One, suddenly all is clear. We will see. We will know the Presence and find peace.
We are walking down life’s road in this very messy crisis time in our world. The Risen Christ, the Spirit of Life Anew, is with us. God holds us even when we are not watching. Walks with us even when we cannot see or feel the holy Presence. Accompanies us on the pilgrim journey. As we turn inward in prayer, in contemplation, in simple Being with our selves, with our loved ones in the now of each moment, leaving behind the “what ifs,” the worry and fear of plans tentatively made….as we offer up all that we have in thanksgiving and to a be blessing, we will glimpse the Holy One and it will be enough! It will infuse our souls with the energy of sacred Joy so that we can continue as pilgrims traveling the unknown roads of our times. Jesus is walking and talking us home. Entering our hearts in new ways. We will learn by going where we have to go. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. All rights reserved.
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.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
By nature, I’m someone who tries to think optimistically. I attempt to track down sugar and water to make lemonade with the lemons life gives, and then to pour a partial glass of lemonade and consider it half-full instead of half-empty.
This pandemic, though, is giving my optimism a run for its money. I’m realizing that we don’t have the answers, the solutions, or even the ingredients for lemonade.
We are in a time when the old, tried-and-true answers don’t work. All of us — teachers, accountants, clergy, HR folks, factory workers, healthcare workers, attorneys, restaurant workers — have been given a brand-new set of challenges that require us to think in different ways.
Ron Heifetz at the Kennedy School at Harvard famously defines the tried-and-true solutions as being applicable to what he calls “technical challenges” — the problems that have a straight-forward fix. You see a lightbulb has burned out, and you replace it. But the situation that all of us are finding ourselves in right now requires out-of-the-box thinking, lots of experimentation and making mistakes, learning as we go. Heifetz refers to this as an “adaptive challenge.” One of the facets of adaptive challenges is that working toward solutions tends not to come from a single expert viewpoint, but from a large body of stakeholders experimenting together and learning from successes and failures.
So, that’s one of the factors that makes living through this pandemic challenging to us. We’re all having to realign our priorities, the way we spend our time and money, finding ways not to become too isolated from the world, and do things differently. You and I are having to figure out new ways to be a community of faith and to maintain our sense of spiritual connection.
Yet, with all of these challenges, we also encounter some opportunities as we do thing in new ways.
If you’ve spent any time perusing the news or flipping through Facebook, you may have seen a few before-and-after photographs of visible air pollution in major cities around the world. I’ve downloaded one, so that you can see for yourself what the atmosphere has looked like in Delhi. We know from personal experience that people are not driving or flying as much as we did. In major European cities, nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped 30-60 percent. That reduction in our use of fossil fuels — not just in transportation, but in industrial production — has had an impact on air quality.
I don’t want to neglect the fact that people are ill with and dying of Covid-19, that millions have become unemployed, that small businesses are struggling mightily, and that many of us have seen retirement savings and other investments tank. But you know the bad news already.
About seven weeks ago, when we were hearing about Covid-19 in China and Italy, my friend, Mike, in Masters Swim class made the comment, “Maybe the planet is telling us we need to unplug it for a few weeks and then try restarting it.” I’ve continued to think about that in the ensuing weeks.
One of the resources that we have in the midst of this crisis is scripture, which can function as a dialogue partner, a comfort, a challenge, a source of stability. I hope that you have a practice of reading the Bible regularly, but in case you don’t, here is something that got me wondering. Both in Exodus and in our reading from Leviticus today, we read about the need of the earth to have a sabbath. The planet needs a break, and the prescribed amount of time is one year out of seven, a sabbath year. What if we are giving God’s planet an unintentional sabbath? Could we make an environmental sabbath intentional?
When you think about the way Orthodox Jews observe the sabbath each week, doing no work, no cooking, no driving to synagogue and living within walking distance — it’s one day a week set aside exclusively for God and community. One day is about 14% of a week. Imagine the impact of God’s planet if we would observe sabbath and reduce humanity’s use of fossil fuels and other sources of pollution by 14%.
Too often, we in developed nations have wasted and taken for granted the opulence of a lifestyle that is very hard on the environment, whether it’s driving a long commute or flying as often as we do, or using paper towels and plastic bags in our kitchens with reckless abandon. We have had a lifestyle that is not worthy of God’s trust in us as stewards. I’m not saying we can never use paper towels or fly anywhere…but what if, in addition to advances in solar and wind power, we gave God’s world an environmental sabbath and cut back by 14%? Maybe telecommuting, online meetings, further investment in renewable energy are a sensible first step, and we’ve proved we can do it.
Personally, there are some things I have liked over the past month, like not having to drive as much and spending more time cooking and baking. I have loved seeing Plymouth members do grocery shopping for others, sew masks for other people, offer to do tech support over the phone, and stay in touch with intergenerational pen pals. I love that our deacons and others are in the process of calling every member of the congregation to check in. Many of us are spending more time doing things like taking walks, offering help to our neighbors, connecting with people, really appreciating and thanking essential workers. And some of us are finding that we get a sense of joy from that shift.
What are the things that you have rediscovered or realized for the first time during this pandemic — activities or ways of being that nourish your soul? How will you hold onto those positive aspects of your life after the pandemic?
As we look ahead, we get to make an intentional choice about the kind of changed world we want to rebuild and create. We can decide that we want to return to the previous North American cycle of rushing everywhere, pushing the limits of our physical and mental health, living life as a highly leveraged business model that has no room for breathing, and destroying God’s planet. We can opt for that. But we don’t have to.
There is an old saying: “Never waste a good conflict,” and that can be really helpful for removing a log-jam in a relationship or in a congregation that is stuck. And I think we have a new corollary in our midst: “Never waste a global crisis.”
This is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink our priorities, our lives, our faith, our place in God’s world. We can examine the things that are working, whether it’s realizing who is an “essential” worker, our city providing shelter for homeless people, more time with your kids, connecting with your neighbors, or just slowing down. We CAN change the things that are not working, whether it’s the broken American system of healthcare, economic inequality, or an administration run by someone who seems to care more about himself than the people he has sworn to serve. We can change the positives and the negatives. But it will take enormous fortitude to stand up to the specter of broken normalcy that already is screaming for our attention and to people literally banging on statehouse doors demanding a return to the old normal while the virus is still rampant…not to mention a president who foments such rebellion. It will cost lives.
Sabbath is calling to us. The kingdom of God is calling to us. We have an alternative vision of life available to us — it’s a vision that includes environmental sabbath and true social justice. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.
In some ways, we are not so unlike the Hebrew people who are wandering for 40 years in the wilderness (though for us, it’s only been about 40 days, though there are times it’s felt like 40 years!). They are in a dramatic “threshold time,” emerging from the wilderness into a new land, and the writers of Leviticus are structuring the ethical, moral, and religious precepts for a people moving not just into a new place, but into a new chapter of their civilization. They are making intentional decisions about what kind of world God would want them to create, and they answer in part with the idea of “a sabbath of complete rest for the land.” (v.4)
We, too, are in a “threshold time.” Walking through doorways of transition and transformation are never comfortable, but if we are to step across the threshold into newness and faithfulness, we can’t long for the good old days when we were enslaved in Egypt.
My friends, we are a people of resurrection, and we can help bring Christ’s presence into the world if we have the will to do so. We are moving into a new chapter in the history of our civilization, and we can — we must — be intentional about the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. At Plymouth, we talk about and pray for the kingdom of God, here and now and still unfolding. Now is our best chance to help put precepts into practice. With God’s help, we can make it so.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Acts of the Apostles 16.16-34
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Two different stories of liberation comprise today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. One is the story of manumission: the release from demonic possession and slavery of a young woman who is being exploited by those who own her. And her freedom ironically leads to the captivity of two apostles, Paul and Silas, who are thrown into prison because they helped to free her from bondage. The second liberation comes as Paul and Silas are freed from prison as an earthquake breaks the prison cell doors and unshackles them and others.
It’s an odd tale…definitely one that fits the genre of an adventure story. Can you picture for yourself Paul and Silas, wounded from having been flogged, in a prison cell with their legs in stocks in the middle of the night? I imagine that it was dark and dank. We don’t know what their long-term prospects were, but after being beaten, they were probably awaiting execution…long-term incarceration wasn’t typical in the ancient world. What would you do if you were in their place? I imagine that I would pray fervently and quietly. How about you? Would you be singing? Maybe so…singing is one of the things that sometimes dispels fear. Maybe you would start quietly with the triumphant Welsh hymn and the words of that great preacher from the Riverside Church in New York: “God of grace, and God of glory, on your people pour your power crown your ancient church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.” Or maybe you’d sing the words of one who suffered during the Thirty Years War in the17th century: “If you but trust in God to guide you, with hopeful heart through all your ways, you will find strength with God beside you, to bear the worst of evil days.”
One of the aspects of music in worship is that it gets us out of our heads and into our hearts. Singing has an affective dimension that employs our bodies as well as our souls and minds. And that is especially important for those of us who find ourselves in the oh-so cerebral Congregational tradition of the UCC, the church that founded Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth, along with so many other American universities.
But being thoughtful and appreciating the life of the mind is not mutually exclusive with being able to feel deeply as well. When we are in moments of crisis, it is the ability to feel our faith (and not simply analyze it) that pulls us though. That might be why those two early apostles found themselves singing hymns at midnight in a seemingly hopeless situation in a prison cell.
When I was beginning to write this sermon, I was talking over the text with Jane Anne, and she told me that she remembered a sermon her dad had preached about this passage, and he called it “Singing Hymns at Midnight.” And so, I borrowed his sermon title, though the content is different.
Milton and Bettie, my late in-laws, were acquainted with tragedy as their daughter, Jo Catherine, was killed in a traffic accident when she was sixteen. Milton was a seminary president and taught philosophy of religion and had a great theological mind. But he also had an incredibly big heart…not unlike Jane Anne. And in that sermon, Milton recalled how in the dark of the night, after learning of Jo Catherine’s death, he found himself reading scripture and singing hymns at midnight. That was the aspect of his faith that gave him strength and hope in the face of tragedy. It wasn’t theological analysis, which of course is important, but rather the affective dimension of his faith that Milton relied on in that dreadful hour. He later told Jane Anne, “As I looked into the abyss that night, I realized that everything I had been teaching and preaching my whole life was true…I believed it in the midst of tragedy.”
What about you? How would you lean into your faith at such a moment? At times like those, it is so helpful to have a spiritual toolkit that contains a passage of scripture, a prayer, or a hymn that you know by heart, even if it’s just one line. Your spiritual toolkit can help calm your mind and your heart.
One of the amazing figures of colonial Christianity in this country, Jonathan Edwards, served Congregational churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts before becoming president of Princeton. Edwards concluded that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Edwards was writing in the 18th century before the advent of psychology, but he was able to identify that faith involved more than the head; it also involved the heart. “Holy affections” involve emotion, but they are more than that for Edwards. He lists love, hope, joy, and gratefulness as positive religious affections. And we can lean into those to bolster our faith.
It was love, compassion, and concern in our story that led Paul to keep the guard from taking his own life and to tell him that by putting his trust in Jesus he would be saved.
That word “believe” is an interesting one for many of us. For some of us believing reflects the experience of Alice in Wonderland, who said to the Queen of Hearts, “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Faith does not mean convincing yourself of six impossible things before breakfast. It means opening your heart and mind to relationship. Believing in someone is vastly different than simply judging the veracity of a statement. And it’s more than conjecture. If I say, “I believe in you” to my son, Christopher, it means that I have confidence in him. And the English verb “believe” has its roots in the Old English “belyfen,” which is also related to our verb, “belove.” To have faith in God is about relationship; it is more about the heart than it is the head.
So, when we say, “I believe in Jesus,” it is less about affirming his existence and more about saying that I trust him…I have confidence in him…I put my faith in him.
In our story, when the guard comes into relationship with Jesus, he responds faithfully through deep hospitality, taking Paul and Silas, his former prisoners, into his home, cleaning their wounds, and feeding them. That’s a theme: for the last five weeks, each story from the Acts of the Apostles has involved hospitality, when one person provides housing, food, or both. Hospitality essentially seals the relationship and underscores faith.
So, if you find yourself feeding the hungry or standing up against gun violence or extending hospitality to people, or even if you find yourself singing hymns at midnight, just go with it. It may be your relationship with God showing up in unexpected ways. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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