04-26-20 THE ROAD TO EMMAUS

THE ROAD TO EMMAUS
Luke 24: 13-35

Although Emmaus is the name of the village to which disciples were returning after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, its location is almost mythical. There are at least two places that advertise themselves to be Emmaus. One is the most likely of all of them, but that doesn’t stop the others from claiming to be the place. It brings in notoriety, and with it, tourist dollars. Although we did not walk to the traditional Emmaus village last summer on our Holy Land trip, we did go there by bus. Some in our church have even experienced a special three-day retreat of discovery that is called a “Walk to Emmaus.” I can tell it is special. Today, however, I suggest that a walk with Jesus is not just an event recorded in Luke 24. It is a promise that Jesus hopes will comfort you. ust as Jesus walked along that road long ago, he walks along with you even today in your most distressing times too.

As I told the boys and girls about a stuffed animal that comforted me and kept me company when I was young, I know people in these times of stress who have something … or someone … to comfort them. Some people I know talk to their electronic device like Alexa or Siri; some talk on their phone with friends; one widow I know got a parakeet just so she could have daily chatter! Some have a dog as a companion, one that might sleep at the foot of the bed or even on the bed. Some have cats. Some have other animals. Most of us really don’t like to be alone. Some just turn on a TV to make it seem like someone is there. And some find Facebook or emailing very comforting. Coming home a month ago might have been a source of anticipation. Now of course many are home a lot. But for those health care workers, coming home after hours at a hospital must be a relief. Some grew up believing, “there’s no place like home.” Fictional accounts foster the comfort many feel as they are making a journey home. From the moment Dorothy’s Kansas house is hit by a cyclone in the beloved film, “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy keeps wanting to go home. But as she journeys to Oz, she has companions: a scarecrow that talked, a Tin Man without a heart, a cowardly Lion, and her dog, Toto.
In the musical Finian’s Rainbow, the masterful Fred Astaire’s last film, he plays an Irishman named Finian who travels with his daughter Sharon until he departs from her in the last scene. He strolls away telling her they’ll meet again in “Glocca Morra.” In Mark Schultz’ song called “Letters from War,” his faithful mother wrote every day to her son, never hearing back from him; some thought that he might have died, but she never lost hope. Two years later, he comes into their yard and into his mother’s arms, carrying all the letters she had written to him. Almost everyone, in times of journey or crisis, needs a companion. And returning home is comforting. On the road to Emmaus, two men were returning home from their journey to Jerusalem. Jesus was with them, though they did not know it. Today I want to suggest that Jesus is with you in your aloneness or your sadness, in crisis or on your journey too. Today I believe he is with nurses and chaplains; he is with doctors and scientists; he is with widows and widowers, parents and children. Parents need support; children need to Facetime friends or phone calls or to shout to friends across a street. We are most comforted when someone we can count on is with us. What is it like to move through your life now, with the days running together? To what do you cling besides the cross of Jesus? Do you cling to a blanket like Linus? Or to a special toy, or a doll, or a stuffed animal? Do you cling to your cellphone or computer, or to a photo of a special person? Do you talk to that photo, or talk to yourself? Think about the most difficult parts of your day. Can you picture your Lord Jesus, coming alongside of you, listening in to either your conversations or your thoughts? What if he is really there, though you cannot see him? I want to suggest that Jesus can be, and is, really there. Through the power of God, Jesus can be, and is, with us; not ruling in Heaven like an aloof king. Instead, he is with us. In today’s technology, many can now heavily stream shows for their television programs. It is not is like 20 years ago when there was a set time to start a TV show or record it. Now with streaming services, you and thousands, even millions of other can watch shows whenever you wish. You can start it, pause it, and end it at will. Even the church services that we stream from our website or YouTube you can watch anytime you want to; you can watch them again; and you can watch them at different times from others! It is amazing technology. By analogy, that is the way Jesus can walk with you, and walk with me, and walk with your neighbors, and walk with people all around the world at the same time! But Jesus does not do it through technology, but through the awesome power of God. Jesus walked with two disciples toward Emmaus and they didn’t recognize him. Jesus walks with you too, though you will not recognize him, that is, until something happens: like a familiar voice; or the hair on your neck or your arms stands up; a shudder goes down your back. Then you will know that he is with you.

This week, after finding no public domain hymn that described the walk to Emmaus, I walked over to my piano and I sat; I thought, and I prayed. I felt like I was not alone. I left the piano and went to my computer, and I wrote the words for today’s song; then I went back to the piano and imagined a tune to go with the words. I wrote down the notes to see how they would fit the worlds. Then I called musician Don Kruger to see if he could turn it into sheet music. And he did. And I never felt alone as I wrote it. These are the words I sang for you today:
“Some brokenhearted Christians, walked down a darkened path,
Wondering if the Savior would indeed appear at last.
Then in time of hopelessness, hope appeared again,
The risen Lord had come to join dejected friends.”

(And as if Jesus is singing these words to us, here is the refrain:)
I am here, said he, I am here.
When you cannot see me, I am here.
As you pray to God, your prayers will be heard,
When you cannot see me, I am here.

The other verses also were meant to show people that they were not alone either:
“As women trudged to see the tomb where Jesus had been laid,
They thought about the caring man whose sacrifice was paid,
as in ages long before, an angel said ‘fear not;’
and so the news spread far and wide, salvation had been bought.”

As men walked to Emmaus, we walk our roads today,
Asking if our sadness will turn to joy some day.
And then, as if at God’s command, Jesus did appear,
In a common thing—like life breaking bread—they knew that he was there.

I wrote a final refrain that did not get sung today. Perhaps another day it will be sung. But today, it is the crux of the Luke 24 message to you:

When your heart burns within you, he is here. 

When your heart burns within you, he is here.
If you pray to God, your prayers will be heard,
When your heart burns within you, he is here.
Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 26, 2020

04-19-20 THE PURPOSE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL

John 20: 19-31

Each year that passes by, my grandsons (between the ages of 7-4,) take longer to believe what I tell them. I think their playmates must trick them enough that they stop believing things the first time they hear them. Last week was my birthday, and my daughter asked her son, Marshall, (the five year old) how old he thought I was. “6?” he asked? “No” I said. “7?” He asked? “No” I said. So I said, “I’m sixty-four!” His eyes got big as saucers! I don’t think he could comprehend someone that old! A young Paul McCartney put his stereotypical lyrics into the Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” At one point he sang, “Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?” And I thought, he nailed it! Those are some things I see plenty of people doing at 64; and now I expect I’ll be digging weeds too! It’s hard to wrap our heads around some things in our world. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the challenge President Kennedy gave to our nation in a speech he gave on May 25th, 1961, giving the challenge, before the decade was out, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. That was in the sixties, when calculations were made by over-sized clumsy computers and, we learned, by some sharp minded women of color described in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures.” Last week, 50 years ago, a later mission, Apollo 13, almost ended in disaster. And 108 years ago last week, the ship touted as “unsinkable” sank; the Titanic. People then doubted the safety of ocean travel even more. NASA stopped sending Apollo rockets into space in 1972. People doubted the safety and necessity of traveling to the moon. But in the late 1970s the cruise industry started growing and the Space Shuttle program became a great success for many years! Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, people are doubting if they will ever feel safe taking cruises again; or flying in planes again or shaking hands again; or talking to people face to face again. Fears feed disbeliefs, but with time, courage, and new insights, we can move forward. We as a society learned that we could cross the ocean safely again; that we can fly rockets safely into space again; and I have learned that there is life after 63. It seems that we start as children in a tender and innocent fashion, but we grow wiser with uncles who tell us they can remove their thumb right before our eyes (As I showed the children today,) and we learn who we can trust, and who we can’t. We may have had playmates who taunted and teased us, and that likely brought on two things: tears, and callouses. Tears because the tender parts of our innocence got poked and challenged. We felt hurt or embarrassed or mad. We got callouses on our soul and our psyche, just like with our bodies. Adults taught me this axiom: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” So we join with the rock group “The Who” in declaring, “We won’t get fooled again!”

We don’t know anything about Jesus’ disciple Thomas’ early life, but I’d imagine he was an ordinary boy, learning from his father and sometimes being teased by other children. So by the time he was tapped to be an apostle of Jesus, he joined the band of brothers already jaded; and he joined the rest of us in saying to himself, “I won’t get fooled again!” I get that, don’t you? I don’t want to be caught flat-footed in a group of peers who are in a taunting or teasing mood. I can feel my emotional shields going up in an involuntary fashion. But they do not engage when I am playing with those sweet grandsons! My son Matt told me I should see the new film “Onward.” What’s it about?” I asked. “About brothers who get to bring their father back from the dead for just one day, but only the bottom half of his body comes back.” “What?” I asked disbelieving, wondering if I heard him right. “Just watch it,” he said. “You’ll be glad you did.” Weird, right? “Is that believable?” I wondered.

When do you doubt what someone says? Today it is hard for us to erase the knowledge of Easter; I have been told Jesus arose from the dead since I was a young boy. But a man rising from the dead was unbelievable in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem. Finding Jesus’ body gone was a shock to Mary who went to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. It seemed to stun Peter, who, according to John, had to go back to the tomb after Mary reported what she found. He ran to the tomb for the same reason that we would- to see for himself! When a picture in the newspaper showed a small plane that had crashed into the side of a house, dozens of people got in their cars to go drive by and see it for themselves. When someone says, “It’s gotten cold outside,” how many of us either check the temperature ourselves on our phone, or on a thermometer, or by walking outside? When someone says, “A baby bird has fallen to the ground from a nest” how many of us instinctively want to see it and think about helping it? Me? The words of my parents fill my head: “Leave it alone; if you touch it, the mother will not take care of it; and if you stand by the baby bird, the mother will not return.” But like most of you, my instinct is to look! “Mary went and announced to the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord!’” Thomas wasn’t there when Mary made her announcement. Had the others made the trip to check out the tomb for themselves? Some did. They wanted to see for themselves, just as we so often want to see for ourselves. They had time to process what they had seen; they had time to think back on all the words that Jesus had said before his death and fit the pieces of his puzzle together. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus himself appeared to them. That hadn’t happened to Thomas, yet.

Some women have told me that after their husband died, a number of days later they saw their husband appear in their bedroom. One woman said she saw him at the foot of the bed; another woman said she felt his warmth beside her and saw his side of the bed sink down as if he were lying beside her. Do you believe that? Do you doubt that? I believe what those women said they saw; but no one has ever told me they touched their loved one physically; it was, by most descriptions, an apparition. Jesus was different. A full week after he arose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples for a second time, to Thomas for the first time. Thomas might have thought he was seeing an apparition too. But Jesus knew human nature, just like Jesus knows you, and knows me. So he said, like I would say to one of my grandsons: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus’ goal was not to trick people, or even to amaze people. John knew Jesus’ goal; he wrote about it at the end of this chapter; so that we “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that through believing, you may have life in his name.” (vs.31) Jesus trusted John perhaps more than any of the other Twelve. He chose for John to watch over his mother after his crucifixion. And he chose for John to write these things down so that people like us, who cannot jump into a DeLorean and go back in time, might believe. Jesus so much wants us to believe in him, and in what he said. No doubt! Doubts can sometimes be voices of darkness, trying to pull us away from the one true voice. Don’t let that happen1 Trust Jesus! Trust John! And trust the message that our Lord Jesus truly has risen from the dead! That is “a foretaste of glory divine,” as hymnwriter Fanny Crosby put it. Fanny was blind from a young age due to the incompetence of a quack doctor. And yet she, in her blindness wrote so many hymns. “How many?” you may ask. Like Marshall guessing my age, would you guess a hundred songs? Two hundred? Her publisher forced her to use several pseudonyms, so she is said to have written 9000 songs! I can picture your eyes growing big as saucers; like Marshall’s did when he learned I was 64; and like Mary’s did when she saw the empty tomb! Try in your life to return to wonder and amazement, not giving in to discouraging, doubts, darkness, and cynicism! Find some things to be wide-eyed about! It could change your outlook on life!
Thanks be to God, for news that makes our eyes wide.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 19, 2020

04-12-20 LIFE FROM A TOMB

Matthew 28: 1-8

This year we have faced first the Crucified Christ on Good Friday, and then the Risen Christ now on Easter, both with the backdrop of the Covid-19 virus. Starting in China, it has shut down or immobilized other countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea, and much of the United States. It has emptied out most commercial airplanes and it has parked cruise ships in any dock where they are allowed to stay; without passengers. This has become a time of war, but not against another country or an army; it is against a virus, marching unflinchingly throughout our globe. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Most Easter services are not being held at all, or they are offered online. Social distancing matters. But even in times like these, there are children being lifted up by teachers driving through their neighborhoods and honking safely from their cars. There are people on Facebook telling others not where to find bread, but where to find toilet paper or sanitizer! We have neighbors offering to take lists of grocery items from other neighbors and to bring back the groceries, limiting the exposure others might have had. And so yes, a pinnacle Christian story about life from death is just what we need to hear at a time like this! Years ago, Carl Hopkins Elmore, after seeing the maltreatment of many people in the world, sent an appeal to all Christians on Easter Eve saying:
I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity. To this end, I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter signify Christ realized, and not merely Christ risen.

My preaching professor, Dr. Donald Macleod, took apart the idea of Christ realized verses Christ risen. He said, “Many, even church members, will greet Easter morning with the triumphant strains of ‘Jesus Christ is Risen today,’ but will leave the world-shaking implications of this fact unacknowledged and unexplored. [Easter for them] means no more than history’s record of one Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died sometime between 4 B.C.E. and 33 C.E., and whose memory time has not been able to flout or destroy. At best, Easter is a delightful festival and provides a pious note as a harbinger of the coming of spring.” Dr. Macleod died years ago, likely picturing sanctuaries teaming with men in pastel colored ties and women in Easter bonnets. A friend of mine send me a meme this week with a group of six women standing next to each other in Easter Egg colored house coats! The caption: “Easter dresses for online church this year!” Likely true! But Christ realized is another matter from the yearly celebration of Christ risen. The empty tomb is a theological celebration, but empty tomb living means we change the world with the message and work of Christ! It means that Christ has to come out of the annals of history, out of the seasonal celebrations of Easter-wear and become a redeeming force for humanity. And the way Christ does that is through the church: the body of Christ; through you, and through me. Christ risen is an annual celebration, but Christ realized means that something has to be done! It implies that human hearts must be shaken by the presence of Christ, his amazing grace, and his inexhaustible love. As Paul said, and I reminded you last week: “Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation …and he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Bringing together members of the human race to find help and hope at a Christian table, at a Christian pantry, in a prison ministry, or through teaching the gospel is now on us, not on Jesus. For that challenge to have the most impact, Christians must risk rolling back the rug under which politicians have swept issues of immigration, of justice, and of affordable housing or available hospital care in this pandemic. If Christ were here in the flesh, he would likely be standing in the House or the Senate Chambers in Washington, like he took a whip to the Temple in Jerusalem, and saying “well done” to some, and “things need to change!” to others.

But some might pause here, asking “Why are you bringing up these unpleasant, politically divisive issues in an Easter message? Read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, you’ll that find Jesus’ entire earthly ministry involved those issues; his rising from the dead meant he left us a Great Commission and God left us the powerful Holy Spirit to carry out the work that Jesus began. Ours would be a hollow and groundless religion were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed, as the Nicene Creed affirmed: “Very God of very God;” one who lived a human existence, reflecting someone never known or seen on earth before, who taught us a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to before. He embraced the will of God so completely that he himself was truth alive, who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the powers of Satan. After his death, he appeared to many, proving that he arose from the dead! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impetus for some of the most inspiring parts of culture: paintings by Raphael, and DaVinci, and Michelangelo; music by Handel, Bach, and Haydn. Christ inspired the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot. The idea of the risen Christ has influenced many writers and artists through the ages. Yet Macleod also said: “[The risen Christ] can never become a vital and creative truth in us as long as we place our highest Easter offering upon the altars of the gods of commerce and refuse to meet the cost this day entails.”

Matthew 28 included some surprising facts: women were at the tomb as body anointers; a great earthquake shook the ground; an angel descended and rolled back the heavy stone from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and there the angel sat! What a scene! Guards were there in Matthew’s account, so no one could steal Jesus’ body; Roman guards were known to be fearless, yet seeing the angel, they become frozen “like dead men.” And then … then, the fear changed to hopeful joy; to the possibility that all Jesus had said was true; that under God’s command he could not only rise from the dead, but also ascend into heaven! This is the historical event that changed the dating system we use and established churches around the globe. Today many sanctuaries are empty, even as the tomb was empty. The power went forth from the tomb, and the power has gone forth from countless sanctuaries, becoming the church without walls! The empty tomb teaches how Jesus’ rising from the dead changed the world. The empty sanctuaries teach us that the people are not gone; they are deployed into the world where need is everywhere. You are the hands, and feet, and eyes, and heart of Christ! Use them, as you bring the world Jesus- on Easter, and in the days ahead.

Let us pray:
Oh Lord Jesus, fresh with wounded wrists, and ankles, and a wounded side and a wounded head: what a sight you are for sore eyes! Who would have guessed you would survive a brutal Roman cross! But survive you did, and now you thrive as the glorious King of Kings and Lord of lords! Now, we can sing “Hallelujah!” Now we can shout “Praise the Lord!” We seek to change the world, even in our own corners of it, so people will know we are Christians by our love. Thank you for loving us so much Lord! Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 12, 2020

04-15-20 – Hosanna! Save Us!

John 12:1, 12-16

In our world today when health care workers and chaplains and other first responders are on our front lines of care and protection, they might best understand the exhaustion with which Jesus greeted the crowds on the day known as Palm Sunday. I have chosen the story as told from John’s gospel today. If you were with me last week, you might remember the story of the raising of Lazarus; how his sisters Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. How they counted on his friendship—and on his power—to keep their brother Lazarus well. I know from my daughter that the health care workers and chaplains have family members in hospitals plead with them—plead with them—to save their loved ones. For this virus, there are no sure things—no sure medicines, no sure protective supplies, no sure answers. And yet the pleading, and the wailing continues. It is exhausting. Health care workers and chaplains go from their possibly contaminated hospitals into their garage, or their utility room, and strip off contaminated clothes, putting them in the washer, and then scrubbing themselves in a hot shower. If they could, they would take their responsibility cloak off too—the one they have worn for an 18 hour, or a 24 hour, or a 48 hour shift. They are done. But yet, they are not done. They might have a spouse or a child who needs care and attention. They might need to eat since they’ve ignored their bodily needs. They might want to cry in private. This is the life of these health care workers now. Then there are the parents—moms, dads, grandparents. I have seen some posts on Facebook, with their child home, saying things like: “First day in home school—my student already needs the principal’s office!” Others tearfully write “I can’t do this—watch my kids and work from home.” One grandson said glumly that he wished he could go back to school; and those parents wished the same thing! Everyone in this day and age is being forced to adapt to something forced on them. Jesus, I suspect, is wrung out by this time too. He’s had his critics from the beginning—people who just said little things in stage whispers that he could hear. He wasn’t made of stone, you know! He was human … and he heard … and he hurt. His best friends—Mary And Martha—were disappointed in him. One of the most painful things my father did to me when I did something wrong was not to spank, or to ground me. He would say: “I’m disappointed in you.” And Jesus has just been wrung out by disappointment. In addition, this man’s man wept for the first time that was recorded. He wept with Martha, perhaps not because he was grieving, but because he was spent. Oh and just before he was with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in that exhausting exchange, the Jews in the area were preparing to stone him according to John 10:31.

Now, like an exhausted health care worker coming home to a child, or like a parent spending days with pent up children, it was time for Jesus to enter the lion’s den. Oh not a real lion’s den, but it might as well have been. There were people who were on high alert for rabble rousers, and trouble-makers, and false prophets.
Jesus started toward the city as he left Bethany on the other side of the hill and came down the east side on the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem. But his journey down not only gave boys and girls someone to cheer, it gave hope to the Jews that this man
might be a king, or maybe a messiah, or at least a warrior. So, as John’s passage tells us, they waved palm branches for the occasion. Why palm branches? Not just because they were available; it was because the palm branch was the national symbol of a free Israel. A national hero named Judas Maccabeus (not Judas Iscariot) was celebrated for leading a revolt against the Seleucid Empire beginning in 167 B.C.E. In the Hasmonean period that followed, the Jews ruled themselves; they felt free! The palm meant “Save us!” Then the palms their coins meant “we are free!” The season of Hanukkah celebrates that brief time of freedom. But that freedom did not last. Rome conquered Still, there was lingering hope might return one day, and they hoped it was now! Maybe the man who made people rise from the dead would to lead them to freedom again! So they grabbed their national symbols, not from a vendor but from the ground or from a tree, and waved the branch of a palm tree high in their hand! Every good Jewish boy had learned the words of the prophet Zechariah, where in chapter 9, verse 9, declaring: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” The glass slipper—so to speak—seemed to fit Jesus! And so they chose to cheer him on! Down the steep hillside they went, ceremonially draping their cloaks on the ground as Sir Walter Raleigh did for Queen Elizabeth. In addition, they waved palms and dropped them in the path in hopeful honor, making it more difficult for the little animal to carry a man down the steep path. I have walked that path on one of our holy land visits, and it is not easy. Some chose to get on our bus and meet us at the bottom. So this was a determined—and a joyous crowd—and might we say a desperate crowd? They were so hoping he was the one. The children in the crowd missed the dark or hopeful undercurrent. It was a parade! It was fun! But there were others in the crows who were wary. As Professor Harold Hill sang in “The Music Man,” some people just thought they had “trouble” with him coming to their city! So they watched, and then sent word to others ahead who were there for Passover. He entered through the east side wall through “The Golden Gate.” And it was there that the so called “triumphal entry” was accomplished. All the cheering stopped, and the tensions rose. Jesus, the healer, the man from Nowheresville—Nazareth—had arrived. Like some in our world now, our Lord arrived at the beginning of a week anxious and worn down.
Acting like Hospice nurses, we are asked to give him round the clock care for his last week on earth. Can we do it?

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 5, 2020