Sunday, May 4, 2014

Their eyes were kept from recognizing him

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
At St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C., a new statue was recently installed. It is a statue of Jesus curled up on a bench, covered by a blanket. From a distance, he appears to be a person without a home seeking shelter on the bench. Only on closer inspection can one see the wounds of the crucifixion that reveal his identity. The statue bears the title Jesus the Homeless.
Someone in the wealthy neighborhood where the church is located called the police when she first saw the statue. She thought the statue was an actual homeless person, and she didn't want homeless people in her neighborhood. Her eyes were kept from recognizing him. Oh, how foolish we are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!
With a statue, the wounds known as the stigmata serve as the punch line, the big reveal to say, "Hey, this is Jesus." What about real people who are without a home? How often is Jesus in our midst without that big reveal? How often do we fail to talk and to break bread with him, so we never have our eyes opened and recognize him?
Matthew's Gospel tells us: The king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Jesus is among us all the time, but our eyes are kept from recognizing him.
The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. How do we know the Lord Jesus? One body are we, alleluia, for though many we share one bread. How often is this true? How often do we keep our bread, our body, our lives so deliberately set apart from those in need? How often do we build walls so we don't have to associate with "them?" So we don't shop at the same stores, or send our children to the same schools, or have to wait in the same waiting rooms as those we find less desirable to be around? How often do we cut ourselves off from the one bread, the one body? How often do we cut ourselves off from the chance to encounter Jesus in the face of the poor?
Jesus is in our midst. But like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we don't always know it. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our eyes are kept from recognizing him. But Jesus is in our midst.
The disciples thought they could help this poor fool they met. They managed to meet the one ignoramus who didn't know about the things that had taken place there in those days. They managed to find the only person who hadn't heard about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. The disciples thought they were bringing enlightenment to someone who was in the dark. They thought they were the ministers, and the uninformed stranger on the road was the one to be served. And it is meet and right that we should help the uninformed become informed. It is meet and right to help those who need our help. But in this case, their eyes were kept from recognizing him. The ones who thought they were the teachers were, in fact, the students. Those who thought they were doing the feeding in fact were the ones being fed.
When we feed the hungry, when we welcome the stranger, when we visit the prisoner, we are not helping the unfortunate. We are encountering Jesus himself in the face of those in need, and all that we do to serve is no more than we owe to our Lord and Savior, who feeds us and gives us grace. When we prepare meals for South Oakland Shelter, when we reach out to help the refugees at Freedom House, when we sing with the home bound, we, like the disciples, think we are the ones serving. But we need to look for the face of Christ in those we encounter, and treat those we encounter with all the dignity and love that is due to the body of Christ. When we extend hospitality, like the disciples on the road, our call is that we too come to know the presence of the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That we too come to realize that when we think we are serving, we are in fact encountering our Lord. When we think we are teaching, we are in fact learning the truths we truly need to know.
Jesus is in our midst. Are not our hearts burning within us while he is talking to us on the road? The Lord is risen indeed, and is made known to us in breaking bread with strangers. Alleluia.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

It almost seems like the cross would have been enough.
If Good Friday were the end of the story, we would have ended with a message of profound hope, consolation, and sympathy. Because the passion is all about com-passion, suffering with, about God becoming flesh and dwelling among us and being with us in the midst of our most profound sorrow and pain. The message of the cross is this: whatever burdens you bear, you do not bear them alone. Whatever demons torment you, you are not alone in your torment. Your God loves you so deeply, so profoundly, that God took human form to join us in facing whatever demons plague us. Oppression by empire? Imprisonment? Hunger? Pain? Abandonment? Being misunderstood? Rejection by society? Rejection by our closest friends? Guilt for the wrongs we have done? Failure to communicate with those closest to us? Loss of faith? Whatever we suffer, the message of the cross is that we do not suffer alone. God says, "I am with you, and I will stay with you to the end, even if it kills me." Which it did. What wondrous love is this, o my soul?
The crucifix, a cross with the statue of the tormented suffering body of Jesus on it, became a symbol of popular devotion as Europe suffered from the great plague. As large numbers of people endured a painful death by disease, they found solace in the image of the suffering Christ, for they knew that they had a God who could meet them in their suffering. The crucifix told them that they did not suffer alone, that God knew what it meant to suffer and loved them and was with them.
If Friday were the end of the story, this would still be a story that hope is stronger than fear, that companionship is stronger than Empire, that solidarity and community and love cannot be vanquished by torture and death. If Friday were the end of the story, we would be left with the gift of the crucifix, the gift of com-passion, the gift of God's boundless love. If Friday were the end of the story, we would be left with the knowledge of the wondrous love by which we know that whatever demons we face, we face them in the companionship of a God that loves us and stays with us even unto death.
And so they laid Jesus in the tomb. But Friday was not the end of the story. So we move from a glorious gift of grace to an even more glorious gift of grace.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They wanted to see it. Jesus had been taken away from them, but they still longed for whatever connection they could still experience. But when they got there, suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid."
God's great reversals continue. The armed Roman soldiers guarding the tomb faint in fear, but the unarmed women coming to mourn their friend and teacher who was just tortured to death are still standing. The mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
The angel continues, "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."
Do not be afraid. Jesus is risen. Believe, and spread the good news.
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
But before they got to the others, these apostles to the apostles met Jesus himself.
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
In the face of profound evil, Jesus did not succumb to hate or fear or the desire to avoid pain. He let the profound inhumanity of empire run its full course without summoning the hosts of heaven to his aid. But as if that itself were not enough of a miracle, we now have this: evil did its worst, but he lives. He lives, and now there is nothing that we need to fear.
He lives, and whatever demons torment us, God is stronger. He lives, and however long our pain lasts, God's love lasts longer. He lives, and however much death we encounter, there is more resurrection.
Because evil tried to encompass Jesus, but it could not contain Jesus. Death tried to take in Christ, but it could not hold Christ, and now it is a broken container. Like a bottle full of water that bursts when the water freezes, death is forever cracked. Like a sweater stretched over a person several sizes too large for it, death is forever misshapen. Death can no longer hold us, because it tried to contain Christ, and now it is broken. Death can try to take us in, but we can see through the light shining through the cracks, and now we too have the promise of the resurrection. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. But we all, as we die with Christ, so too shall we be raised with Christ.
And because of this, our story does not end with the solace of the cross. In our Eucharistic prayer, we pray that God might deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. And so the resurrection empowers us. We move from being comforted to being both comforted and comforters. We move from being merely the recipients of God's abundant grace to also being agents who share that grace in the world. Like Mary Magdalene, we are told first Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. Solace, then strength for mission.
For Christ has been raised from the dead, and we who live in Christ are empowered to love and serve without fear because nothing — neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, do not be afraid. Proclaim God's love to the world. Alleluia! Christ is risen!