Walking to Emmaus

Third Sunday of Easter  |  Luke 24:13-35

Nobody seems to know who Cleopas is. He is just another man walking down the road, and as for his friend, well, we don’t know his name. We don’t even know that the second person was a man—perhaps it was a woman, perhaps Cleopas’ wife?

Sun Through Trees 4x6 015All of the famous (and at least named) disciples are huddled together, trying to make sense of reports that Jesus is alive, and these two people leave and start walking away. Oddly, Jesus takes the afternoon to walk down the road with them. They talk about prophecy and scripture, the sort of religious things that they were likely taught from the time they were children, and the unexpected life and death of the man they had believed was the Messiah. And we are told that they were kept from recognizing Jesus until the very end of their time with him.

We don’t know them. We don’t even have the name of one of them, but they were important to God.

We might remember someone else who did not warrant having his name recorded in scripture—the Pharaoh of the exodus story. He was ruler of all of Egypt, and we don’t even get his name. We are told that his heart was hardened so that he wouldn’t understand and yield to what God was doing. In the end, he is a symbol for every despot and tyrant in history, every person and thing that would try to enslave us.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are also symbols, this time representing us. We, like they, walk along unseeing, thinking that we understand more than other people. These two even chide Jesus, saying, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”

When they finally realize what they did not know, they turn around and go back to where they started, perhaps to begin again. When Cleopas and his companion return to Jerusalem, they find that Jesus has also appeared to the other followers gathered there, just as he appeared to them.

All our lives we are travelers. It is impossible to remain in one place, even if we sit perfectly still. Time moves the horizon, and our landscape and our traveling companions change around us. We may think we are on the road to a destination of our choosing, but sometimes we need to go back to share what we found or to find what we left. Sometimes we find ourselves lost, as in a forest, our only light filtered through the leaves of the trees above us.

In the end, our names will not matter. We ourselves may forget them, given enough time. What matters is whether we open our eyes to see who is beside us. Just because we do not recognize God does not mean that God is not here.

What We Need To See

Second Sunday in Easter  |  John 20:19-31

Several days after he dies, Jesus appears in a locked room full of witnesses including a doubting disciple named Thomas. The wounds on Jesus’ body—the nail holes in his hands, the spear wound in his side—are still there.

Does that bother anyone else?

Almighty God chooses to become incarnate in a human form, performs amazing miracles, dies horribly on a cross, returns to life, and yet somehow fails to heal the wounds on this body? What sort of body is this resurrected one anyway? According to the gospel accounts, something certainly happened to the one that was laid in the tomb—when Mary Magdalene looked inside, no body was there. The implication is that Jesus occupies the same body as before his death, with the same wounds, but now he passes through closed doors, appears and disappears, things Jesus never was reported to have done previously.

What is different about this resurrected body, and why are the wounds still there? The answer must be, at least in part, that God shows us what we need to see.

Thomas, the gospel records plainly, needs Jesus to show himself, needs Jesus to let Thomas see those wounds and touch him. And so Jesus does.

On Canoe PointingThe implication is that God shows us what we need to see. It may not always make sense, not to a rational world view that does not take non-empirical matters into account. It may not even make sense to those people who do embrace matters of mysticism and of faith.

We hold that there are truths that we cannot measure, realities that we cannot measure or even touch and that we often fail to understand or to notice.

The question is whether we see what God shows us. It is different for everyone. A man standing at a bus stop sees a raindrop land on a bench, and to him it is only a raindrop, while the child beside him sees the whole world reflected in the eye of God.

God shows us what we need to see. Are we seeing what God shows us?

Hearing Voices

Easter  |  John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, the last place she had encountered Jesus, and she cannot find him.
Dogwood flowers 011God is dead, in her heart, in what she has seen—Jesus beaten, wounded, dead on a cross, his body placed in a tomb hurriedly sealed with a stone. Now, as she returns to the tomb, she can not even find the body of the man in whom she has learned to see God. Her loss is so disorienting, so crushing, that she does not comprehend that she is speaking with angels and with a resurrected God among us, Jesus alive once more.

Early sources do not deny that the tomb was empty. Even those groups antagonistic to the new Christian faith did not deny that the tomb was empty. Instead, the question was how—what had these followers of Jesus done with his body?

It is odd that the gospels make no attempt to describe the process of resurrection. In each case, the story skips instead from God-incarnate-dead-in-the-tomb to God-incarnate-alive-once-more. Arguably the most powerful moment in the gospel, the moment in which Jesus returns to life, is never described. They left out the special effects.

There is much in John’s resurrection narrative (and in those of the other gospel writers, and in the references in Acts and in the letters of Paul) to cause us to wonder.

When Lazarus was called from his tomb, everyone recognized him, and not simply because the tomb was marked. When the resurrected Jesus appears, the stories include the difficulty of recognizing him. It is only when Jesus calls Mary’s name that she knows who he is.

Why upon rising from the dead does Jesus not parade through the streets of Jerusalem to demonstrate the power of God?

Why were the first witnesses of the resurrection, in all four gospels, women? In the extraordinarily male-dominated first century world, would not men have made more convincing witnesses? And out of all of the women available, why always Mary Magdalene?

I find myself seeking reason and certainty when it comes to God and the resurrection. I wonder why it is that God did not, does not, proclaim God with all of the convincing power of God. Why are we left with only these odd gospel stories and these strange brief passages describing the post resurrection appearances of Jesus?

It is strange, this way of God. The Almighty, creator of heaven and of earth, choosing the path that leads to crucifixion and death. God slipping quietly from death and the tomb to speak to Mary Magdalene. Almighty God, able to catch the attention of all creation in a flash, choosing to leave us pondering stories.

I want answers. God gives us questions.

I want certainty. God offers us faith.

Faith cannot be mapped. It cannot be measured, or even understood, and it is often characterized more by our doubts than our beliefs.

We want answers. God must want something different for us, something that we might not even recognize when we see it. We may only recognize it when we hear God call our names.


Liturgy of the Palms  |  Matthew 21:1-11

Expectations. We all have them.

There was an entire crowd watching this man Jesus riding into Jerusalem. They came together just to see him, to line the road with soft tree branches and even with their own clothing. He was a rock star.

Another crowd was watching from inside the city, and they asked who this man was. It was a good question, seeing all the fuss.

This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.

That is the answer the crowd by the road gave, according to Matthew’s gospel. (They didn’t actually have rock stars in the first century.) What they thought about him was less clear, perhaps even to them. They had expectations, though, that much is certain.

We have expectations of God—what God wants, what God is like, what God is doing, often of what God is going to do for us. When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we either blame ourselves as being unworthy or we blame God: guilt or disappointment. We seldom examine our actual expectations.

I might expect my dog to fetch my newspaper. Other people Dogs are Rock Starshave told me that dogs do that sort of thing. I’ve seen it happen in movies. In actuality, my Westie will jump onto the back of a chair by the window and watch me fetch the paper, or anything else that needs to be brought inside. He will, on occasion, fetch something from inside the house and take it outside, such as one of my shoes.

The problem is my expectations. No one, meaning me, ever taught my dog to fetch the newspaper. In fact, I don’t even have a subscription to a newspaper. And if my dog ever went out unsupervised, I suspect that he would just keep going and send me a postcard from Hawaii. Imagining that my dog will fetch the paper is borderline mental deficiency.

We expect things of God. We might deny it, but on some level we expect God to look like the paintings, all robes and a white beard. In reality, God might look like some codger eating shrimp on a porch in Louisiana, or like a little girl with a shimmering rainbow balloon. God might decide to look like my dog, or like something we would not even recognize.

I imagine the last possibility is the most likely. God looks like something we would not recognize, perhaps do not recognize right now, right in front of us. God does things that we do not expect, in ways that do not meet our expectations.

The crowd thought that Jesus was a prophet, coming with the power of God to deliver them out of their problems. If we’ve got it right, Jesus actually was the power of God, and he did come with deliverance, just not the kind that anyone there had in mind. Maybe he wasn’t even bringing the kind that we have in mind.

When we explore the whole faith thing, we expect our lives to change, our problems to be solved, and our lives to become radically transformed, like in a movie. It doesn’t quite turn out that way, not for most of us, not most of the time.

We need to examine our expectations. Or, better, we need to get rid of our expectations altogether.

Don’t expect things about God, how God will look, what God will do, how God will react. That is mere religion, or superstition, or self delusion.

Faith just expects God.


Fifth Sunday in Lent  |  Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45

Gravel 008The lectionary guides us to Ezekiel 37:1-14, the valley of the dry bones, and to John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus. We are invited, in this time of Lent, this journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, to contemplate the tomb.

Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, visionary, one of the most strange of all the strange people in scripture, tells us of his vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel speaks of many wonderful and frightful things. He sees angelic beings with wings and wheels, cities built like cubes. He sees a valley full of the bones of the dead. The bones are the people of Israel as individuals, all those who perished in the past, being raised at the last day. The bones are also the collective people of Israel, the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah destroyed by oppressors, finally being restored by God. The bones are many things, on many levels.

The bones are us. The bones are our lives, scattered like sand over our days, our losses, our failures, our shortcomings, our longings, our sins. The bones are our ignorance, our hard-headedness, our hard-heartedness. The bones are us.

And here in Ezekiel, ‘son of man’ (your translation may say something else, mortal perhaps) is not a phrase referring to the Messiah. No, in Daniel and in the Gospels we find the messianic phrase ‘the son of Man’ used to describe the one born of woman but who is God. Here, in Ezekiel’s stark vision, the son of man is just that—the dying child of dying children, one who knows and must accept mortality, the unrelenting bondage of time.

Son of man, mortal creature, says our God, can these bones live? Can our shortcomings be repaired, our failures remade? Can our lies be untold, our unkind truths be recalled? Can we find the honesty to see ourselves from within, our sinews, our bones? Can we be saved from the dust of which we came?

Lazarus had been dead for four days.

Again, there are many levels to this Gospel story, many levels to everything John records in this Gospel. We see Jesus, God among us, the resurrection and the life. Who lives and believes in me shall never die, Jesus says, do you believe this? Shall these bones live, oh mortal? O Lord, God, you know the answer, says Ezekiel, and so say we. Yes, Lord, you are the Messiah, says Martha, and so say we.

Just as the bones are us, our lives, our past, our future, so are Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Each of us is them. Each of us is Martha who boldly goes to meet Jesus, to meet God, on the dusty road. Each of us is Mary, holding back, hearing of God’s nearness, God’s approach, but slower to respond, each for our own reasons and for our own time. Each of us is Lazarus, already dead within, carrying the darkness of our own choices, surrounded by the darkness of the world, grieving for ourselves, for those lost before us, grieving for the pain we cannot spare those we love, perhaps for the pain we have caused them, the pain we have caused for ourselves.

We are in Lazarus’ tomb. We are the people sitting in darkness, the prisoners, the poor, the pitiable, the naked and the blind.

And that is the Gospel we hear—that voice. It is Ezekiel, prophesying, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. It is Jesus crying, Lazarus, come out! The promise of the Gospel is resurrection, newness, life, the promise of Easter.

For now we wait. These days of Lent give us time, here in the darkness, to gather the bones of our failures, our shortcomings, our doubts and our fears, our losses, our grief, our anxieties, our needs, our weakness. We have time to examine the dry, bare truth of who we are, each of us in the darkness, unknown to those other souls around us. And we wait.

Who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.

We wait for the sound of the stone being rolled away, death and loss being remade. We wait for the Easter voice of God, calling us out from our tombs.

Already and not yet—the Gospel promise, the new life in Christ, is described as already and not yet. Already we have the life of God. Not yet are we fully transformed. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, alive, renewed. He is already resurrected, but he is no heavenly being; he is restored, but not yet of a new heaven and a new earth. He walked in the same dusty paths as before, but he no longer carried the dread of death; his second journey to dying became one of hope, a journey toward a voice he knew.

We walk as Lazarus, leaving the darkness behind. Jesus commanded that the robes of death be removed, that Lazarus be unbound. Likewise, hearing that voice, we are raised in renewed life, unbound by those burdens that dragged us into darkness. We leave our bindings behind; there is no need of carrying those burdens any longer.

Easter is the promise of resurrection, the call into new life.

And now we listen. And now we wait.