Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
On September 2, 2013, Katie and I were preparing to enjoy a lazy Labor Day with our little Evie when we heard some shocking news involving two of our friends. Rob and Hilary had worked multiple summers with us at Stony Lake, a Lutheran camp in West Michigan where Katie and I first met during our college years. The camp world is a close-knit community, especially when you work at a place like Stony that has a small staff and few places to go to get away. Hilary and I, in fact, had known each other since we had been campers at Stony during our confirmation years. You can imagine how disturbed we were, then, to receive the news that our friends, avid bicyclists who had recently moved to Florida to take advantage of the great weather and bike-friendly atmosphere, had been involved in a hit and run accident with a pick-up truck that morning. As more details trickled in, we were horrified to learn that Rob had died of his injuries that morning, and that Hilary had been placed in a medically-induced coma because of the severe trauma that she had sustained. Less than three weeks later, Hilary’s family made the difficult decision to remove life support, and she passed away on September 21. The man who hit them claimed to have blacked out on his way home from the third shift, realized what had happened when he woke up later that day and saw news reports, and turned himself into police. Two weeks ago, we learned that this man, who has since been confirmed to have been drinking in the hours before the crash by surveillance video, has pled guilty to two counts of “leaving the scene of an accident involving death”; he will be sentenced later this month to 11 years in prison as punishment for reckless actions that killed two beautiful, irreplaceable people.
This world is broken, and it can be a cruel place. Diseases ravage people and families. Natural disasters strike communities. Violence and hatred wrack nations and peoples. In the language of Scripture, the shroud of death hangs over the whole creation. All of us do our best not to become paralyzed by the brokenness of the world, to keep on moving in the midst of this reality, much the same way that Cleopas and his companion walked with heavy hearts and leaden feet on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that distant Sunday. As they made that seven-mile journey, they were joined by a mysterious traveler who forced them to confront the overwhelming loss of their teacher and Lord by telling their story. They laid their souls bare as they openly revealed the deep pain of their dashed hopes to this stranger, unable to contain their shock and surprise at everything that had taken place. Then, something incredible happened. That same stranger started to connect the dots for them, showing them that Scripture had revealed how the Messiah’s suffering would lead to glory. By the time the group reached Emmaus and the traveler prepared to move on alone, Cleopas was too intrigued to let him go. The two disciples invited their traveling companion to join them for dinner, and during the meal they come to a moment of realization. As the stranger took charge of the meal, giving thanks, breaking the bread, and passing it around, their eyes were opened to the identity of that traveler: it was Jesus himself! Though he vanished as soon as they recognized him, they couldn’t forget what they had seen, and they resumed their journey, this time to share what they had experienced with their friends back in Jerusalem.
Many pastors will tell you that this story is one of their favorites in all of Scripture, and I would be one of them. The reason for that is that it is a story that takes very seriously the journey that each us of walks as disciples. We travel in the midst of brokenness and pain, often so consumed by that brokenness that it comes to dominate the story of our lives. But we don’t walk that road by ourselves. We gather together with other disciples, named and unknown to us, and in so doing, we find comfort and strength in one another. As we gather, we bring our stories and, in opening Scripture, find those stories reflected in the larger story of the community of faith. Then we come to the table, taking bread and wine and finding nourishment for our bodies and souls. Finally, we are sent out to tell others what we have experienced, not as people who have been completely healed of our hurts, not as those who are immune from future pain or loss, but as people whose stories have been heard, honored, and transformed by words of love and grace. All of this is made possible, of course, not simply because we do what we do, but because in gathering together, in reflecting on the word of Scripture, in sharing a holy meal, and in being sent out, we encounter the risen Christ himself. It is his presence that causes our hearts to burn within us and our eyes to be opened to the reality that God has entered our stories, and that in every pain, every grief, every loss, every struggle, Jesus is walking alongside us.
This isn’t just wishful thinking, either. We don’t recall the stories of faith, like the story of that journey to Emmaus, because they’re nice but made-up tales that make us feel better. We recall those stories because they continue to ring true, because they are stories grounded in experiences like ours. In the weeks following Rob and Hilary’s accident, even as the grief we experienced deepened with the realization that we would never see our friends again in this life, we also experienced the presence of Christ. Those of us who joined in the journey of grieving that senseless tragedy grew closer to one another. We called to mind all the times that Christ’s love and grace were made known through the ministry of our beloved friends. We shared words of encouragement, memories that brought laughter amid the tears, and, as we said goodbye to both of them, called to mind the promise of Scripture, the promise of Easter, the promise of life conquering death even when death seems strongest.
Brothers and sisters, sometimes like Cleopas and his companion, we find ourselves weighed down by the cares of this world, by the trials of life lived in brokenness and pain, and the message of Easter seems unrealistic. Remember that it has always seemed that way, and that as we continue to walk the road of faith, we will doubtless have moments when we wonder if resurrection can truly be possible. In those moments, may we be reminded of the stories of our faith, stories that take our doubts and questions seriously, stories that mirror our own because they are ours. May we continue to find strength in gathering, listening, eating, and going forth in the presence of the one whose death for our sake has broken death’s grip on creation. May we find ourselves surprised over and over by the hope of resurrection, new life, and new possibility. May our hearts burn within us, and may our eyes be opened to what God is doing in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is risen indeed! Thanks be to God! Amen.