But we had hoped…

I know that I have focused on the phrase “but we had hoped” in the story of the Road to Emmaus before. Maybe in a sermon three years ago, or maybe in a Bible study. But it seemed way too applicable to today’s moment to pass it up in favor of focusing on another part of the story.

Have you had disappointed hopes recently? Are you scared to hope for the future, worried that it will only lead to more disappointment? These early disciples knew how we feel, and Jesus has a word for them and for us.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“But we had hoped.” But we had hoped. The road to Emmaus is a road where hope is in the past tense. The past tense of hope is just an incredibly sad word. But we had hoped. These two disciples have just seen all their dreams and hopes dashed. Jesus, the one they followed, the one they hoped in, has been put to death. The worst, most godless death imaginable. Worse still, his tomb is empty, his body is missing, and the women who loved and followed him seem to have gone crazy with their bizarre tale of angels and gardeners and talking ghosts. And so, they walk the road of exhaustion, grief, and disappointment. They are headed home dejected.

But we had hoped. I had hoped about my child’s birth since finding out I was pregnant. I had hoped about introducing this baby to family and friends, getting to see my grandmother hold her first great-grandchild. I had hoped.

We’re all a little familiar with that past tense of hope right now. Seniors in high school and college had hoped for celebrations of their achievements. They’d hoped for proms and graduations and thesis presentations. Engaged couples had hoped for weddings that are now postponed or limited to just a few witnesses. Family reunions, anniversary trips are canceled. But we had hoped.

But we had hoped that the treatment might work. But we had hoped that he wouldn’t get laid off, that she could keep working through the crisis. But we had hoped that our loved ones might be spared. But we had hoped. With those two disciples on that first Easter day, we travel the road to Emmaus, the road of disappointment and grief.

But then, we come upon this miracle: this bitter, grief-filled road is also a sacred road, because this is a road that Jesus walks. Jesus comes alongside these disciples in their pain and disappointment. He doesn’t reveal himself right away. He doesn’t push them straight to rejoicing, but first listens to them, talks to them. Enters into their grief and longing with them.

He hears them out, allowing them space to articulate their grief, to give voice to their dashed hopes. And then, when they’re done, he offers them another story. It’s the same story they just told him, only Jesus gives it a new light, a new context. When Jesus tells the story, the death of the Messiah finds its place in the history of God’s acts of redemption. Jesus shows them a new future. It’s not exactly what they hoped for; it doesn’t end the way they assumed the Messiah’s story would end, but it is full of possibility and promise. And hope.

If you are walking the road to Emmaus right now, living with disappointed hopes, whether big or small, know that you do not walk this road alone. Jesus walks with you. Jesus feels your pain and grief, and they matter to him. But Jesus also has something else in store. New hope, and a new future.

While the disciples do not yet recognize Jesus, they invite him in to share an evening meal with them. They take a chance on this stranger and extend their hospitality. And then, everything changes. Such small things. A loaf of bread. Thanksgiving shared around a table together. Small and commonplace things reveal the divine presence that has been with them all along.

God is powerfully, wonderfully, hopefully present in the small and everyday things of our lives. In sharing a meal together. In the phone call or text with a neighbor. In the encouragement offered to another disciple traveling the road with us.

But we had hoped. Yes, we had. Of course we had. So very many things are different right now than we hoped they’d be. And yet. And yet the stranger who is the Savior still meets us on that road to Emmaus. And yet the guest who becomes our host still nourishes us with his presence in the ordinary moments of life.

So, wherever you are on the road, know that we walk together. And we walk side by side with our God. Amen.

Finding Jesus in Isolation

Doubting Thomas is one of my absolute favorites. Maybe it’s that I like an underdog, but I always feel like Thomas is treated unfairly. After all, when Jesus meets the other eleven disciples, he displays his hands and side without prompting. All Thomas wanted was what the others got! I like that he demands to encounter Jesus for himself. He reminds me of the Greeks earlier in John’s Gospel, who approached Andrew and Simon saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We wish to see Jesus.

One of the best parts of this story is that, clearly, Jesus wants to be seen. He comes to meet the disciples where they are, not once, but twice. He shows them what they need to believe. Jesus has not stopped showing up. And, if this story is to be believed, we don’t even have to leave the house to find him!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This reading, of the disciples’ and then Thomas’, encounters with the risen Christ is always the Gospel story for the second Sunday of Easter. This year, I decided to browse through my old sermons on the topic, to see what I had to say for the past five years I’ve preached on it.

In almost every sermon, I talk about how the disciples were locked away in a room together. This is Easter day, when our story starts. Mary Magdalene has come and told them about her encounter with the risen Jesus, and they remain locked away. And a week later, when Jesus comes back to see Thomas, they’re still locked away! Didn’t the news of the resurrection mean anything to them? Why did they continue in their old patterns and old fears?

Well, needless to say, this year I have just a little bit more sympathy with these disciples locked in a room for days on end. As social distancing continues to extend into the future, and schools are closed for physical classes through the end of the year, staying in a locked room for just ten days like the disciples did doesn’t seem so drastic.

Of course, our reasons for staying in are very different than theirs. It says that the disciples were locked away for “fear of the Jews.” Now, all the disciples were themselves Jews, so they were really locked away for fear of the authorities who had put Jesus to death, not all Jewish people everywhere. But fear. Fear was what kept them inside, apart from Thomas.

We are locked away, separated from each other, not out of fear, but out of love. As an act of faith. To help slow the spread of COVID-19, to give our medical professionals a better shot in handling the surge of cases. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, because our jobs allow it, because we have the resources of others who put them selves at risk to deliver and shop and tend, we do so not out of fear, but out of compassion and love.

Still, though, we can sympathize with the disciples. Staying put and not wandering out. Wondering what is going on in the city. Wondering when it will be okay to venture forth safely. Perhaps Thomas wasn’t there that first week because he was the one designated to make the shopping trip, to bring back essential supplies for the rest of them.

But here’s the thing: Jesus shows up. Suddenly, miraculously among them, locked door notwithstanding. Twice, in fact! Jesus shows up where the disciples are. You might have thought that after hearing the news of the resurrection, the disciples would race out and find Jesus. But it doesn’t matter that they didn’t. Because when they didn’t, Jesus came to where they were.

Jesus comes to meet us where we are. Whether we gather in a sanctuary, or across the internet in our own homes, Jesus is present with us. Whether we are staying home, working at a hospital or grocery store, or from a delivery truck, Jesus is present with us. There is nowhere we can go that Jesus won’t find a way in. Jesus is present in our interactions with one another, whether those we’re physically with or those we only see on Facetime. Jesus is present in the actions we take to keep one another safe and well. Jesus shows up no matter where we are, because Jesus knows we need the gifts he brings.

The gift of peace. The gift of his Holy Spirit. Gifts that provide us with love and hope, gifts that sustain us through difficult times. And Jesus brings the gift of sharing his wounded hands and side. It never actually says if Thomas takes him up on his offer to touch them or not, but Jesus displays them to Thomas, just as he did to the other eleven disciples.

Jesus is still wounded. Even resurrected, Jesus bears the marks of his suffering and death. Resurrection doesn’t remove all scars. Celebrating the season of Easter doesn’t mean that we can’t still be wounded and hurting. It’s okay to call ourselves resurrection people—to trust and hope and live in God’s new and abundant life—and to still bear the weight of grief and loss and sadness. Even Jesus’ resurrected body, the only resurrected body we get a description of, bears the marks of pain and suffering.

Christians are sometimes described as being an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. That’s true now more than ever. We are an Easter people because we believe that God’s actions in raising Christ ultimately defeated death and evil forever. That we live in this new reality where love is stronger than hatred and life is stronger than death. But we also live in the reality that suffering and death and loss remains a part of our lives.

Both those things can be true, just as the resurrected Christ appeared with his wounds still visible. Jesus comes to us where we are—wherever we are—wounded, scarred, but bringing peace. On this Easter day, let us join Thomas in his demand that Jesus show up for him. We need Christ to show up in our lives, and the good news is that he always does. No matter the locked doors, no matter the separation, no matter the grief or fear or pain. Jesus shows up, and offers us his peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The old, old story…

Several hymns are guaranteed to make me cry every time I sing them, and “I Love to Tell the Story” is one of them. It’s what came to mind this morning as I tried to come up with a title for this blog post. Easter was so different this year. Some things made me incredibly sad: not being able to gather with St. Paul’s, not seeing my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, feeling so stressed out and anxious. Other things, I’ll admit, weren’t the worst: cooking a massive meal for just me and Tim, not feeling 100% exhausted at the end of the day, having time to breathe, getting to “go” to worship instead of leading it.

Even though there were a couple of positives, though, I would have gladly traded them in to have a “normal” Easter together. But as much as this Easter is different, one thing hasn’t changed: the good news of the resurrection. That old, old story stays the same no matter our circumstances, no matter our stress or anxiety, no matter our separation from loved ones. And it has a word to share with us as we find ourselves figuring out the “new normal.”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

This is the cry that has echoed throughout the ages of Christianity. For two thousand years, in small rooms, in great cathedrals, in gardens, whispered in secret, proclaimed loudly in the town square, Christians have been greeting each other on Easter morning with this proclamation. Christ is risen!

We gather this morning with Christians far and near, with Christians throughout the centuries to proclaim the boldest news ever told: the tomb is empty! Death has been vanquished! Christ is indeed risen!

This Easter feels different, because, while we gather together, we do not do so physically, but virtually. Or, perhaps a better word, we gather spiritually with one another. We will remember this Easter for a long time, because of the change in our situations. But even though the way we are gathering has changed, the news has not changed: Christ is risen!

This year, I suppose understandably, I was drawn to the confusion in our Easter text. Have you ever noticed it before? How much chaos there is, especially in the early part of the story? Mary Magdalene sets out for the tomb, while it is still dark.

While it’s still dark. When I imagine that first Easter morning, I imagine the sun coming up. It’s early still, but the sky is lightening, bits of orange and pink appearing on the horizon. But that’s not what it says. It says it’s still dark. This is before the dawn. And there’s so much running around going on. Mary sees that the stone has been rolled away and goes no farther but runs to get Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. They run to the tomb then, go in and see the graveclothes lying there. And they go home, leaving Mary alone weeping in the garden.

On this morning that we celebrate with joyous shouts of belief, the disciples are stumbling around in half-light, running here and there, unsure what to think and what to believe. They didn’t understand.

As modern people, who like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, we sometimes forget that the idea that God could raise someone from the dead would be as difficult for these ancient people to believe as it is for us. These ancient people were not stupid. They had seen many people die and never once had they seen anyone come to life again. Their first thought is not that he has been raised from the dead, but that the grave has been disturbed, robbed.

But even there, in the midst of the confusion and chaos, in the darkness of the resurrection morning, is this great line about the disciple Jesus loved: he saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand. He saw and believed, even though he didn’t understand. We do ourselves a disservice when we try to understand the resurrection. When we try to make logical sense of something that simply defies logic. Resurrection isn’t something we understand. It’s something that we believe, something that we trust. Resurrection is something we experience.

Mary Magdalene, that most faithful disciple who came to tomb by herself, even she did not believe until she experienced, in her grief and sorrow, the wounded hand of Jesus reaching out to her. Until she heard the voice of her Lord calling her name.

Resurrection isn’t a matter of understanding. It’s a matter of trust. It’s trusting that death doesn’t get the last word. Trusting that there’s more to come in this story. Trusting that Christ will accompany us through our Good Fridays—no matter how long they last—to Easter morning. Trusting that Easter morning always comes. That love, life, that God has the last word. Trusting that in Christ we are raised to new life both here and now and in the life to come.

We can’t understand it, we can’t explain it. But we can experience it. I’ve experienced resurrection in these past days and weeks in watching people come together, help one another, support each other as best we can in difficult times. I’ve seen neighbors offering to make grocery trips for those who are most at risk. I’ve had people offer to make grocery trips for me, to help keep me and the baby safe. I’ve seen an outpouring of support for the Ardmore Food Pantry, I’ve seen our church community be flexible and innovative and learn to be church in new ways. Much like that first Easter morning, resurrection doesn’t always come when everything is sunny and bright and clear, but it comes in the half-dark chaos that we’re trying to figure out.

But resurrection never stops in that chaos. It takes us from tears and confusion into proclamation. Mary Magdalene experiences the risen Christ and is given a mission: Go and tell. And tell she does. She goes back to the disciples, to those who left the tomb and walked away and declares: I have seen the Lord! The story might have ended with her, if she hadn’t said anything. But the story continues, all the way to us today, because she proclaimed the truth to the disciples and beyond. I have seen the Lord!

We know from other Gospel stories that the disciples don’t believe her. Not until they too experience resurrection firsthand. But that doesn’t stop her. Mary insists on resurrection, even when she’s not believed. She knows what she has seen, and she doesn’t let the cynicism, or doubt, or lack of understanding dampen her proclamation. She insists on resurrection because it is what the world needed to hear. Because it is too good and too life-giving to keep to herself. She has seen the Lord, and she will let it be known.

Easter feels different this year. But the news is the same. Christ is risen! We have seen the Lord! God has conquered the powers of sin and death and creates a new reality where love wins. Where hope lives. Where life always gets the last word. Go and tell the good news: We have seen the Lord. Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Hosannas and Grief

I’m not exaggerating in the sermon below when I say that Palm Sunday is one of my favorite services of the year. When we were filming this service for our YouTube channel, it hit me full force during “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” It’s been weird the first three weeks to film church instead of gathering together–preaching to an empty room is never fun, you feel constricted by the audio/visual requirements, and it’s hard to keep up your energy level when there’s no feedback from people. All three weeks, I’ve been very sad at the end of filming.

But while we were singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. (Luckily, I was off camera and not wearing mascara.) I was imagining everything we were missing. Everyone, from babies just able to grasp a palm to folks who have been part of this procession ninety times already, together, singing this hymn. Andy running as dignified as possible to get ahead of us to the organ. The candles blowing out in the wind and Bob Burns frantically relighting them as we step inside. The acolyte narrowly missing the door frame with the cross. The people of God, gathered together in praise and acclamation.

It was just too much, and the tears started to come. I’ve called what I was feeling sadness, but really, it’s grief. I read an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review that addresses just this topic: HERE. It talks about how, through all of these changes, we are all grieving. We are grieving the things we’ve lost, the things we won’t get to do. Personally, I’m grieving connection, Holy Week, how I imagined the birth of my child happening, among other things. I’m sure you’re grieving, too.

Something I’ve noticed in the past couple weeks, from myself and from others, is a guilt around our grief. I feel guilty because I know that there are people much worse off than I am. People who have this disease, or who have lost loved ones to it. People who can’t self-isolate and must put themselves and their families in danger. People who have lost their jobs and don’t know what to do. What right do I have to grief in the face of such bigger problems?

And, while it is good to acknowledge the ways we remain blessed, to be thankful and grateful for what we have, it is okay to grieve. Grief and loss are not a competition. Just because it’s not as big a thing as what someone else is dealing with doesn’t mean you can’t grieve. We have to first acknowledge our feelings of loss and sadness to be able to process them and work through them. Whatever you are feeling right now is okay. This is all new, and none of us is an expert in how to deal with it.

This is possibly the longest introduction to a sermon I’ve ever written, and not even on the topic of the sermon. So I’ll get back to it. Holy Week runs the whole gamut of human emotion: expectation, hope, betrayal, disappointment, grief, hopelessness, and finally exultant celebration. Let yourself feel this week, for God is feeling it with us.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I love Palm Sunday. It’s one of my absolute favorite services of the year, honestly right up there with Easter. I love the pomp and circumstance, the parade of palms, the festive music. I loved to turn my palm into a little cross, and then do the same to my parents’ palms and any extra palms that the ushers would let me have. As a pastor, Palm Sunday is like getting to have a little Easter, just a mini one, without all of the added pressure that Easter Sunday brings.

But as much as I’ve always loved Palm Sunday, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned what “Hosanna” means. I always thought it was a joyous acclamation, just one step below the Alleluia that we save for Easter. I thought the crowds in Jerusalem were cheering Jesus on, celebrating his triumphal entry.

That’s not it at all. In Hebrew, “Hosanna” means something less celebratory and more desperate. More demanding. Something altogether more appropriate to this year’s Palm Sunday. It means, “Save us now!”

Holy Week feels so very different this year. I come to Holy Week, like many of you I’m sure, scared and unsure and anxious. I’m anxious about what the future will be bringing. I’m scared of all the stones sealing up all the graves that I don’t think are going to be rolled away. I’m yearning for a million different resurrections: small and large, personal and worldwide. As I stand here with my palm and read once again of Jesus coming into the city, my cry is not one of celebration or adulation. It’s a desperate, demanding plea: Save us now!

It’s the cry the people of Jerusalem offered so long ago. They were hungry for a savior. They had been under oppressive Roman rule for too long, and needed someone, anyone, to free them. They thought that maybe, just maybe, Jesus would be that person. The person to overthrow Rome, to liberate them.

Jesus didn’t come for that, though. At least not how the people wanted. He came into his kingship riding on a borrowed donkey. His reign would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, and sacrifice. So often, and especially now, I think I know exactly what kind of savior I need—what kind of God I need. The savior of the quick fix, the miraculous intervention, the tangible and obvious presence. But then we hear this story once again and are reminded: that savior is not Jesus.

If Palm Sunday is about anything, it’s about disappointed expectations. It’s a story of what happens when the God we hope for and expect doesn’t show up, and another God—less efficient, less aggressive—shows up instead. It’s a story of what happens when our cries of “save us now” are met with silence, and our palm branches wither. We walk away, we close our hearts, we betray the image of God in ourselves and in each other. Our hosannas give way to hatred, and we lash out to kill.

Palm Sunday is a day that’s full of paradox. Hosannas lead to shouts of crucify. Hope turns to despair. Potential turns to devastation. God rides in on a donkey. We have a suffering king. We will call the day of his death: Good Friday.

But amidst the paradox, we find our hope: we are held and embraced by a God who is much too complicated for shallow, one-dimensional truths — even our own, most cherished, one-dimensional truths. We are held by a God who sticks with us even when we cry out in anger and hate. A God who accepts our worship even when it is self-centered, ungenerous, and selfish. A God who knows all the reasons our hearts cry, “Save now!” and who carries those broken, strangled cries to the cross for us and with us.

And yet, and yet I am afraid of what lies ahead. I am afraid of how many deaths lie waiting around the corner. I am afraid of how many sorrows and farewells and jagged endings we will have to face before resurrection comes home to stay. I can’t imagine most of it, and sometimes I can’t bear any of it. But Jesus can.

If there is anything in the Christian story that is true, then this must surely be true as well: Jesus will never leave us alone. There is no death we will die, small or large, literal or figurative, that Jesus will not hold in his crucified arms.

Welcome to Holy Week. Here we are, and here is our God. Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry. Blessed is the One who comes to die so that we will live. Amen.