Sunday, April 28, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Am I Cleopas?"

Luke 24:13-24

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him. 17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast. 18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?” 19 He said to them, “What things?” They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.” (CEB)

Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos, Week Two

The Diomede Islands are a pair of rocky outcroppings in the middle of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.  The smaller island, which is on one side of the International Date Line, belongs to the United States.  The larger island, which is on the other side of the International Date Line—and thus is 23 hours ahead of the smaller island, despite being separated by a matter of two or three miles—belongs to Russia (in 2008, I would probably crack that maybe this was what Sarah Palin saw from her house).  During the winter, in order to facilitate contact with the outside world, the people of these islands will carve a landing strip right onto the frozen seawater that separates the two islands, and two Frenchmen who were part of a bush pilot expedition up in Alaska last month decided, hey, you know what would be fun, since we’re already here?  Visit Russia.  As the journalist who was there, Brian Phillips, put it:

We were only supposed to look. That was the deal. We’d hop out of our planes, eat a sandwich, and take a picture of Russia. Then we’d head home. Anything more would be illegal… I turned to the villager who took care of the airstrip — Henry, his name was, he’d come out on a snow machine to greet us — and asked how far to the border.

“Oh, about 400 yards over yonder,” Henry said.

And I took off. I didn’t ask permission. Looking back, I can see that I was undergoing pretty intense mood swings as a result of the PTSD from all the amazing experiences I’d been having. But I was free, wasn’t I, in Alaska? It was slow going, because I was too free to bother with snowshoes and thus had to churn through 30 inches of snow.

I headed across the frozen strait, toward the jagged white rock of Big Diomede.  This was it, the actual end of America. Sure, we had borders with other countries. We had nothing close to this.

But then disaster struck—the plane the two French bush pilots were flying wouldn’t start:

Jay…tried to manually start their propeller with a two-handed spin, the way you see in old movies. The Frenchmen’s engine was as dead as the island rock…

Jay had it the worst. He was out there the whole time, crouched under the plane, trying to get the engine heated. Villagers from Little Diomede kept forming little peering semicircles a few feet away from him. Finally he walked back...

“We’re taking off,” he said. “Bernard and Christophe can stay in the village.”

The teachers had agreed to put them up at the school.  The last I saw of our two French pilots, they were being carted away on snow machines, half-bewildered, waving back at us.

And can you imagine being a traveler in that spot?  We have all been stranded while traveling before, but after having come so far, to the end of the world, you end up feeling left behind?
If so, then I have news for you…you’re just like Cleopas!

My intent behind this new sermon series was to recall that traditionally, the church held Easter to be not just a day, but a season—a 50-day long season that culminates in the story of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit as depicted in Acts 2.  And so for the remainder of the season of Easter, we will be keeping the story of Easter alive by looking at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news on the day of the Resurrection, and we began the series last week with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.  This week, we turn to the beginning of a very famous and well-loved story, the appearance of the Resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus to two followers: Cleopas, and Cleopas’s anonymous companion.  For the sake of storytelling, we’ll call him Bob.  Or whatever the ancient Israelite equivalent was to “Bob.”

So anyways, Cleopas and Bob are walking together to a town called Emmaus, which Luke tells us is about seven miles from Jerusalem.  It’s the day after the Sabbath, and three days after the beginning of the Passover, so you can imagine these two fellows were in Jerusalem for the Passover, stayed for a while to avoid traveling on the Sabbath, and set out the morning after the Sabbath ended.  And while seven miles is not a long way in our books—heck, that’s about the distance from Longview to Kalama—that’s a bit of a hike to two men traveling on roads that we know from, say, the parable of the Good Samaritan, were not the safest.

And that’s important—that we remember that roads were a haven for bandits and highway robbers, because Jesus suddenly appears, the two men are prevented from recognizing him, and—here’s the rub—they make no attempt to ascertain why this mystery man has come up to them.  They’re not interested in figuring out if this man is going to try to rob them or, worse, rob them, beat them, and leave them for dead like the hapless man in the Good Samaritan parable.

Cleopas and his friend have so despaired at the situation that has just unfolded in Jerusalem, with their Messiah having been betrayed and executed that they have basically given up.  Sure, they are going through the motions, but that seven miles might as well be the distance from the mainland United States to the tiny Diomede Islands, so far are they now removed from the trappings of life as they once knew it.

Imagine being stranded in an outpost as remote and as fierce as the Diomedes.  Now imagine that in a spiritual, rather than necessarily physical sense.  That’s Cleopas right now.

And if we were to continue this story, we would hear Jesus chiding—in no uncertain terms—Cleopas’s despair.  And so while it is wholly understandable—and completely human of us—to so despair at such points in our own lives, we are, in the end, not meant to.

When I preached my Good Friday sermon over at Community Christian Church, I said, in so many words, maybe we are not supposed to spiritually survive Good Friday.  Christ does not survive Good Friday physically, it is poetic balance that we not survive in spiritually.  But I think that there is Scriptural basis for this as well: Cleopas has clearly not spiritually survived Good Friday.  He has seen a holiday—the Passover—that is meant to solemnly but joyfully recall liberation from the bondage of slavery be overshadowed and co-opted by injustice and evil.

And so he does what any one of us would do when pressed to such a precipice, to the end of our ropes, to the end of the earth: he despairs.  Utterly, completely, totally, and without abandon.

And here’s the kicker: Mark’s version of the Resurrection narrative has already happened, the women have discovered the empty tomb and fled, and have finally started sharing the news but not found any takers for what they were saying.

Because secondhand stories are not enough to overcome this kind of despair.  Hearsay is not enough.  It’s Luke’s version of the Doubting Thomas story: only proof will do.

But we are not afforded such luxuries today.  We do not have a Messiah who arrives in bodily form and walks with us along our journeys and lets us put our hands in His side and touch His wounds.  We have to struggle and shuffle and stagger on with instead the promise that one day Jesus will return to walk with us and teach us and lead us and all the other things we wish, deep down, He would do today because sometimes, dammit, life is just too hard for us to take.

We look around, and see thousands of children die across the world every single hour from starvation, and think that it would just be easier to give up instead of to stem this tide.  But instead we beg all of you for donations of food every single week to give to the impoverished Highlands children who attend our neighboring Kessler Elementary School.

We look around, and see thousands of people struggling with addiction and all the things addiction can lead one to do, and think that it would just be easier to give up instead of to mitigate this plague.  But instead we host an amazing Narcotics Anonymous group that says to whoever comes: your addicition is beatable, your soul is salvageable, and you are worth that.

We look around, and see thousands of souls forgotten by the world and thirsting for the Good News of God’s love for them, and think that it would just be easier to give up instead of actually offering that love to them.  But instead, every day, in our deeds and in our words, we can decide to show the love of a Christ who is not yet physically here to show that love Himself--it's what Saint Teresa of Avila said: Christ has no hands but yours, no feet but yours.

But these hands and feet cannot feel such despair today.

The despair of Cleopas is completely human, completely understandable, and completely believable.  But it is also completely and wholly a luxury that we can only indulge ourselves in for mere moments at a time, because it strands us from one another; it separates us from each other, it leaves us out in the wilderness like a pilot on a frozen faraway island awaiting salvation.

We feel despair at our lives.  We are allowed to feel despair at our lives.

But then, we must start walking towards Emmaus again.  For Jesus commands it of Cleopas.  And, if we are Cleopas, then we must, as he did, continue walking toward a future that  may, God willing, provide less despair than today.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 28, 2013

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