Rediscovering the Essentials
A sermon by Philip Amerson, St. Marks United Methodist, Bloomington, IN
April 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Easter
Introduction: Let me begin by asking you to consider two questions: First, what in your life’s journey thus far has prepared you for this time of staying at home? Second, what are you learning while staying at home that will help you better live on the journey ahead?
- Darkness and Sight
Sarah Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, is one of our nation’s leading researchers of exoplanets — those places across the universe where the right conditions may exist for life, as we know it, to appear. Professor Seager understands as few of us do, that sometimes we need darkness to truly see. You see, exoplanets are often hidden by brightness of nearby stars. Dr. Seager also knows that sometimes journeying through the dark places of our personal lives allows us to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly. Eight years ago, her husband Mike, died of a rare cancer. Mike gave space for Sarah’s career to flourish. He was house husband and primary care giver for their two young sons. As Sarah put it, she never had to shop for groceries, or cook or pump gas… all she had to do was find another earth.”[i]
Sometimes we need darkness to see, as two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus were about to discover. Who were they? We have the name Cleopas as one of the travelers. The other is not named. I love the mysteries of this story – this is a parable inside a parable and it is for then, and now. This story is filled with surprises. It has become so familiar for many of us – perhaps too familiar. What might it help us see for the first time? In this season of pandemic and fear, eager to get back to business-as-usual and back to something “normal,” who and what might we re-discover to be essential? Where is our true home? What might our eyes be opened to see for the first time?
Our images may not include the possibility that one of the travelers is a woman. There have been several paintings with an artist’s depiction of these two travelers; however, few if any, depict one of them as a woman. In my mind this seems more likely. You see, there are surprises for us here.
In this time when the world has been turned upside down by a microscopic coronavirus – when our personal worlds have been capsized, thrown into disarray, we might well understand the situation facing these Jesus-followers who are headed “home;” but home has become an unknown territory. This fellow Jesus, a promising rabbi, had taught, healed and helped people face disappointment, death and despair. He had brought hope. Now it had been dashed. The words “we had hoped” leap from the lips of these travelers. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Living life with hope in the past tense is worse than death.”[ii]
Those disciples, like us, are caught between two worlds – for one they had hoped — and in one they now lived. Richard Rohr writes: “It would be difficult to exist in this time of global crisis and not feel caught between at least two worlds—the one we knew and the one to come. Our consciousness and that of future generations has been changed. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.” [iii]
- The Essentials
It is in these times that we discover again who and what is essential. Is a haircut essential? Well, it is if you are a barber! A veil has been lifted and we now discover persons who are essential. Who is essential in your life? We discover the essential work of custodians, public safety workers, those who stock the grocery shelves, nurses, truck drivers, physicians, those who collect the garbage… this list goes on and on.
Are clean air, water and a healthy natural world essential? As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, arrived on Wednesday, for the first time in years people in many places saw blue skies, nearby mountains, fish in streams and canals – we are seeing things we had not known we were missing. We now can see – if we look — that we are interconnected with every other person on this planet. We are connected with the entirety of our ecological systems.
As Will Willimon puts it, we are discovering, like these early disciples, that “Jesus is on the loose.” Like a guest who shows up and starts teaching us the lessons we have ignored for too long. Might we see the interconnectedness of all things? Might our global environment be struggling with an infection – a virus or too much pollution? Could our vibrant sphere, this planet, our earth home, be struggling with too much use of fossil fuels, too much travel, so much greed, an ignoring of caring for the health of our natural gifts?
We are discovering that planning, science, good information, wise governance and preparedness are essential. Just-in-time production and delivery now leaves us sorely unprepared — for this sudden change in what is needed for a quality life… for life itself.
Almost 70 years ago, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization and transcendence. I hadn’t thought of this in years, decades. Today, it has become more obvious and important. While we are sheltering-in-place, or staying-safe-at-home, we are discovering again these – and other – core human needs. What would you include as essentials? What would your hierarchy include? If like me you have discovered such things as the importance of belonging with others in new ways – family and friends, caring for the neighbor. Some who you have not thought of in months.
I have discovered that movement is a fantastic privilege. When we lose the freedom to move about freely, we face difficult choices about our identity. Pico Iyer wrote travel books suggesting that “We travel initially to lose ourselves and next we travel to find ourselves.” But later, Iyer wrote a critique of his earlier writings entitled: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Borrowing from Thoreau he wrote: “It matters not where or how far you travel — but how much alive you are to the place you are.” [iv]
And, for me, knowing about home is an essential – Home, where we can prepare for the journeys ahead and practice seeing in a new way. Home is not where you sleep, it is where you stand; it is what and who you value. It is hard to get your bearings when in midair. So, home is more than a place. Home is a work in progress. Home has less to do with a piece of soil than a place for the soul. Nelle Morton, in her book The Journey is Home taught us many years ago that “home was not a place. Home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be ‘their own,’ and increasingly responsible for the world.”[v]
You see, we do not know where Emmaus is geographically. Frederick Buechner puts it this way, We do not have to know where Emmaus is… we just know that it is seven miles from heartache and heartbreak. Even better, I like the notion shared by John Dominic Crossan who says, “No one, then or now, knows where Emmaus is… maybe it is nowhere… or maybe it is everywhere.”
This story challenges our notion that it is our job to somehow find Jesus. Too much of our theology and church work in North America presumes that we are the ones who are to set about to discover Jesus, as if he has been lost. No. Instead, like in this story, it is Jesus who finds us along our journey and in our home… The resurrected Jesus on the loose, finds us, and teaches again what is essential.
Where do you find hope? Where do you see Jesus on the loose? I have found hope in poetry, song and good writing. If you have a chance, read the blog of John Robert McFarland, Christ in Winter. We miss seeing John and Helen in church each week these days — but we can read what he writes. It is a gift and I often read it to discover that Jesus is on the loose in ways I had not seen before. Thank you, John, you help me discover an unexpected Jesus.
- The Table – Journey and Home
So dear friends, in this place and time, what do we learn when we journey? And, what at home prepares us for the journey ahead? Four things I hope you remember from the retelling of the Emmaus story today:
- Sometimes darkness is essential to more clearly see.
- Jesus is on the loose all around you.
- At Emmaus the tables are turned and disciples re-discover hope.
- This hope is a journey. Home is a journey, that may become a permanent residence.
When I think of Jesus on the loose, I think of friends who have helped me see that the stranger just might be the Jesus on the loose, of Christ incognito. I saw this most clearly on a journey I took with two friends, two characters, Ernie Teagle and Raydean Davis. Ernie was a cardiovascular surgeon in Belleville, Illinois. Raydean, a Methodist pastor who served during most of ministry in university settings. We had been reading some Latin American theologians and had the crazy notion of riding motorcycles all the way to Costa Rica to visit with some theologians there.
When we arrived at the border with Mexico, we discovered that we would be charged a crossing fee as well as a tariff. You see, the Mexican authorities thought we might be trying to bring the motorcycles there to sell at a profit. Then we learned that between the Texas border and the Guatemalan border with Mexico, there would be fourteen other check points — each requiring the payment of a crossing fee. So we turned the bikes around and decided to fly to Costa Rica. Heading for New Orleans we ran into a terrible rainstorm. We were soaked and the heavy rain and wind seemed to get only worse. Just over the Texas border with Louisiana, we found a Holiday Inn and decided to shelter there for the night. We were drenched.
Once we were settled, we headed to dinner in the hotel. No one else much was there. There was a waitress, and obviously a cook because food came to the table. There was the fella at the front desk. No one else. My crazy, wonderful journey friends, Raydean and Ernie said to the waitress “Would you bring us another one of those dinner rolls and a bottle of Merlot? And invite the cook, the desk clerk, the custodian and anyone else here to come and sit with us for a while.” They did.
I was slow. I had a vague idea of what was going to happen – I should have known better. When we had all gathered, Ernie looked at Raydean and said, “Okay, you’re on.” Raydean asked everyone to come in close. He asked each person’s name and then he broke the bread and shared the wine. As Fred Craddock has said, “Had they known before the invitation that the stranger was the Christ, one can imagine the red carpet and elaborate preparations. But it was with tired and hungry travelers that they shared bread. They prepared supper, and his presence made it a sacrament.[vi]
St. Augustine said that breakfast the next morning is a sacrament, if one knows that Jesus is present. As the meal was shared these disciples’ eyes were opened. They were changed from those who said, “we had hoped” to ones you exclaimed, “did not our hearts burn within us!”
The funny addition to this story is that the next morning we rushed off on our motorcycles and made it to the New Orleans airport just in time miss our flight. So, we waited another day and again, in another hotel, Raydean blessed the bread and wine and we shared these gifts with a new group of strangers who became our friends.
The text in Luke says that after the meal Jesus disappeared. These two folks who had walked seven miles to arrive home were now ready for the journey, they were now eager to rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others of this experience.
May you understand that sometimes it takes darkness to see more clearly, that Jesus is loose in the world, that tables can be turned and bring new awareness and may you know that home is also a journey… and the journey is also your home. What we learn as we stay indoors can prepare us for the journey ahead. Amen.
[i] The Daily, NY Times, The Sunday Read, The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth,” April 19, 2020
[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown, Gospel Medicine, p. 21.
[iii] Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020.
[iv] Gate, Tom Montgomery, March 14, 2018, from the blog Spiritual Detours.
[v] Morton, Nelle The Journey is Home, pp. xix.
[vi] Craddock, Fred, Luke: Interpretation, p. 121.