Shari Prestemon April 30, 2017
Conference Minister, Minnesota Conference of the UCC
Scripture Luke 24:13-35
It was Holy Week a few years ago now, and I was meeting with Benjamin, a colleague of mine who had fast become a trusted friend. He’s from New York City, a Quaker of deep faith, and his profession is community development and affordable housing. Our paths had crossed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it had wrought on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where I was serving at the time. Together we had launched a passion project to rebuild some of the tens of thousands of homes that had been lost on that horrible summer day in the poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods. And together we were confronting enormous obstacles to all our collective hopes. The disappointments and frustrations were endless.
And so on that particular day, Benjamin and I had spent an hour talking through the latest hassles, strategizing our next stubborn steps. But as the challenges on our list mounted, our conversation moved from the professional to the personal, two friends finding a brief moment of refuge from our shared weariness and despair. He, the contemplative Quaker, and I, the activist UCC’er, put all the dilemmas of housing aside for a few minutes and instead talked about our faith, and about our ceaseless search for those holy places and holy moments in the midst of so much chaos and struggle. It was then that Benjamin shared with me a quiet confession of sorts, one that has lingered with me ever since. “The truth is,” he said, “I’m finding it more and more difficult to see something holy in anything I do or anywhere I look.”
I imagine a conversation and a hushed confession something like this, perhaps, between two other friends along that road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel. They had set out, according to Luke, on the same day of the most confounding discovery: an empty tomb. Jesus—the one on whom they’d heaped all their hopes—was not there. It was just one more stunning event in a long list of events that had left them dizzy with confusion. Who was this person who had seemed to contain within him the very essence of God and yet was apparently unable to summon the power of God when the Romans’ execution was upon him? How were they to reconcile one who’d preached love, embodied compassion and extended mercy with a world so riddled with violence and so unbearably broken? And now that they were left grieving and filled with questions, their world turned upside down, where was this one whom they had so passionately followed and come to believe?
They didn’t have the benefit of hindsight that we have now. This was the first Easter; they were in the middle of that first confounding mix of grief and surprise and utter confusion. Where was Jesus and where, amidst all of that, was the loving, powerful, life-giving God he’d helped them come to know? And what were they supposed to do now?
Such searching for the presence of God in the midst of loss and uncertainty and struggle is a common theme throughout the testimony of faith. The Israelites clamored for God’s clear presence as they wandered endlessly in the wilderness. The long-suffering Job begged for God’s presence in his trials and tribulations. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, people approached him seeking their own irrefutable evidence of God’s power and presence. The sick sought healing, the grieving longed for miracles, the lost yearned to be found, the unloved and unwanted hungered for acceptance. Throughout the story of our faith, this same thirst to understand and readily recognize God’s presence in the midst of all manner of crisis and heartache is everywhere apparent. Whether the Israelites of ancient times, contemporaries of Jesus, or ourselves today, we stretch to find meaning when reality defies comprehension; we long to see God where God seems most conspicuously absent.
You can just imagine the tortured journey of Cleopas and his companion on that road to Emmaus, heads sagging with weariness and eyes focused on the dusty road beneath their tired feet, trying to make sense out of a world that had suddenly taken a very unexpected turn. Yet as they walked there came another who joined them, unrecognizable to them, their vision blurred by all that had transpired. To him they poured out the whole desperate story: their disappointments, their grief, their confusion. And with him they longed to linger on into the night, beseeching him to stay with them for yet a little while. We are told that as they broke bread together, their unseeing eyes gained vision, and they recognized him, Jesus, there with them all along: Risen not dead, present with them, not absent.
We’re there on that road with them, aren’t we? Trying to figure things out. Struggling to make sense of a faith that the world works so hard to extinguish. Wondering if God’s presence is real when good doesn’t always prevail over evil, when one we’ve loved and cherished has died, when devastating illness strikes, when all that we’ve dreamed and hoped for our lives seems to evade us—we’re on that road. When the values we hold dear seem under siege and our country is a place we barely recognize, we are on that road with them. When we watch with horror as hate crimes multiply and Syrian lives shatter and there’s talk of a “major, major conflict with North Korea,” we’re on that road, longing to catch just the slightest glimpse of something holy amidst all the craziness, wanting to be reassured that God is still making sense out of so much that seems senseless.
When my friend Benjamin said to me that day that he was having a hard time glimpsing the divine, I knew what he meant and I nodded in silent solidarity. Perhaps you know what he meant, too. There are times when we find ourselves travelling what seems like a Good Friday road even in a post-Easter world, grappling one step at a time with our own questions and hopes and fears.
But that’s where the Good News enters in, because this story doesn’t leave us in the miserable muck of fear and grief. Though Jesus disappears again as mysteriously as he’d appeared, Cleopas and his companion had already seen enough, and they knew they couldn’t keep it to themselves. Back to Jerusalem they rushed, eager to do for others what this amazing encounter had done for them, wanting to share with others the hope and possibility that had just burst through their thick grief.
Anne Lamott writes about a man caught in another desperate time in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. His name was A. J. Muste. During the Vietnam War he stood in front of the White House night after night with a candle. One rainy night, a reporter asked him, “Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?” “Oh,” Muste replied, “I don’t do it to change the country. I do it so the country won’t change me.”
That’s an Easter kind of response to a Good Friday world! When our lives have turned upside down or the world around us has gone crazy, we can shake our heads in disbelief and let it numb us into inaction or we can grab hold of the resurrection hope God gives us and fling it into the universe. We can get angry and bitter or we can get busy and purposeful. We can become the very thing we despise or we can do our part to shed a little light into the darkest of places.
That’s the choice and the invitation we have as people of faith and as the Church, too. We can get mired in our messiness and occasional madness, or we can step up to deliver a message in word and in deed of fresh hope and fearless possibility.
Some would say that this moment, in this country, is one that sorely needs that message. Some would say it is the kind of moment for which our kind of Church is made, a moment summoning the very best in us, requiring every bit of the deep passion we have for a world that is characterized by extravagant love, justice and a shared, enduring peace.
Over the last few months, I’ve been in multiple congregations and visited with countless clergy and lay leaders, and my heart burns within me just like those two Emmaus travelers because I feel like I’m catching a glimpse of the resurrection, too. There’s a resurgence of deep discernment and more focused purpose among us. It is as if what’s happening all around us is waking us up to our own truest calling as Church, compelling us with new energy and dedication to counter hatred with love, despair with hope, exclusion with hospitality, judgment with generous mercy. I see congregations asking themselves in new ways how God is calling them to be the Church in a moment such as this. Some are voting to become sanctuary and sanctuary support churches. Some are taking to the streets in protest and organizing for greater impact. Others are reaching out to their neighbors in ways they haven’t done before. They’re visiting the sick and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and doing all those things we do because we are an Easter people with an Easter faith even in a Good Friday kind of world.
This is our message, in every moment of life: that all is not lost, that out of desperate places can emerge the greatest of hope, that God will show up in ways we can’t even imagine to right what is wrong and heal what is broken. And this is our calling, as people of faith and communities of faith: to find as many ways as we can to embody and proclaim that message so others might believe.
I give God thanks for all the ways that you, Plymouth Congregational, heed that calling. Thank you, truly, for being God’s voice and hands and feet in a world that sometimes seems more like Good Friday than Easter morning. Now don’t stop. Ask yourselves anew how it is that God is calling you in this moment in time, what it would look like for you to be most fully the Church now. The world needs more of you, all of you, to shed a little light and grace and love.
May all you do be blessed by the God whose Resurrecting Power goes ever with you. Amen.