Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sermon: "Throwing Stones"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 18, 2014 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60;  John 14:1-14

“Throwing Stones”

Whenever I’m tired, stressed out, or in need of a rejuvenating diversion I turn to the same spiritual practice that I’ve come to rely on for the past 15 years.
I put on HGTV and watch House Hunters. 

The premise of the show is simple.
A realtor shows a prospective buyer three different homes in their desired geographical area and price range, and at the end of the show the buyer chooses which of the three homes they want to purchase.

The popularity of this show lies in its ability to tap into the viewer’s emotions as we vicariously experience the thrill of choosing and buying a home, without actually having to invest the time or the money.

Admittedly, there is a bit of voyeurism involved, as we get to peek inside homes that are typically way outside our price range, and we imagine what it would be like to live in such grandeur.

And there’s a bit of judgment involved, as we roll our eyes at the hard to please first time buyers who insist on having granite countertops and walk-in closets, and at the couple whose idea of “downsizing” is moving from a 10,000 square foot home to a 5,000 square foot home.

Through House Hunters we also discover that happiness and contentment is often relative.
As we watch a family from Texas walk into a huge master bedroom and say, “It’s a little small.”
And then watch a family from New York City walk into a tiny bathroom and say, “It’s so big!”

The biggest enjoyment I get out of this show is watching people who have reluctantly made compromises or lost out on buying the home of their dreams, come to realize that the home they chose was the right home for them after all, and they can’t imagine being anywhere else.

We’re all seeking that comforting, welcoming place that we can call home.

In our gospel passage today, Jesus tells his disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places, and I will prepare a place for you.”

We often hear this passage lifted up as evidence of God’s inclusivity, as we interpret it to mean that God’s Kingdom is like a mansion where there is room for us all.

In this age of religious pluralism, this image of God’s house having many dwelling places opens us up to the idea that even those of other faiths and different understandings of the divine presence in our universe have a place in what we Christians would call the Kingdom of God.

This is a beautiful way to interpret this scripture as it makes room for an even bigger God than our Christian forbearers imagined.
In a world where we speak many different languages, have many different cultures, and many different understandings of this spiritual force that is greater than ourselves, a God who created such a world would have to, we would think, have room for all of us and for all of our expressions of what it means to be a loving presence in this world.

It is interesting to note that Christianity itself is a diverse faith with many different understandings of how God’s love is expressed in this world.
We need only to look at the many different ways that we interpret scripture as evidence of that.

The image of God’s many dwelling places, which we would say describes God’s expansiveness and inclusivity is contained in the same gospel passage as the verse that has traditionally been used to describe the path to God as being narrow and exclusive.

It is here that we hear Jesus say:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

What emotions stir within you when you hear those words?

Do you hear a promise  - or do you hear a threat?

Do you feel joy?  Anger?
Or indifference?

These words, uttered by Jesus on the night before he died, were intended to give his disciples hope.  It was a promise that their relationship would not end with his death.
If they sought out God, they would find Jesus.
And if they sought out Jesus, they would find God.
For God was fully present in Jesus’ life and in his ministry.
And Jesus was fully present in God.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” are words offered in comfort….
But these same words uttered by Jesus’ followers over the course of two millennium, have often been offered not as a comfort, but as an ultimatum.
And in that ultimatum, the “good news” of God’s all-inclusive love is lost.

One of the joys and blessings of being a pastor is that we get to walk with people on their faith journeys in all stages of life.

We baptize infants who have no conception of the promises to God being made on their behalf.
We tell Bible stories to young children who imagine God to be a bearded old man in the sky.
We field questions from confirmands and high school students who have tossed aside childhood images of God and have begun a search for a new image to replace it.
We counsel adults who wonder if all the things they’ve been taught about God are true and if organized religion has any relevance in our world today.
And we sit with the elderly in the last days of their lives, when they’ve either made peace with the God they’ve come to know as loving and forgiving, or they’re seeking absolution or distance from the God they’ve been taught is judging and punishing.

What becomes apparent to any pastor – or any one of you who spends time ministering to others – is that people are desperate to hear the message of the gospel – The good news that God is with us always, and that God loves us unconditionally - and there is nothing that WE can do to make this not true.

As Christians, as people of God, as human beings, we need to hear this message over and over again. Because we have such a hard time believing it.

It’s no wonder why, when the prevailing message from Christian churches – in our time and throughout the ages – speaks of God’s love and presence as being conditional and limited.

Jesus said, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
And we say, “But only a few will be deemed worthy of dwelling with God.”

Jesus said, “Grace is a gift given freely by God.”
And we say, “Grace is something we must earn through our deeds and our creeds.”

Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
And we confidently pick up our stones and lob them at each other, standing firm in the conviction that our sin is lesser than the sin of our neighbor.

Why do we do this?
Why do we take a faith that Jesus commanded us to open up to ALL and pile on so many qualifiers that it becomes accessible to only a few?

Perhaps because we are so accustomed to throwing stones we don’t know how to live otherwise.
Throwing stones keeps others from taking what we value.
As human beings, it’s hard for us to break away from the mindset that everything that is valuable and desirable must be hoarded or kept only for a select few, because to share it widely means that we have less of it for ourselves.
We do this with food, resources, land, money, power, status, and love.
Why would the prospect of sharing our God be any different?

So while we have scripture texts that tell us that God is big enough for us all, we seek out those texts that help us to shrink God just enough so not everyone will find a home where we’ve already staked out our claim.

 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me”

We may say that here Jesus pretty explicitly states that only those who come to know him will find a home with God.  But when we consider Jesus’ words in the context in which they were spoken, a different understanding emerges.

These are words offered in comfort to the dear friends and committed followers of a man who is about to die in a horrific and tragic way.
Their lives are about to be turned upside down in a way that they could not even imagine.
So Jesus gave them something solid and strong to hold onto -
the conviction that God would be with them and love them, no matter what.

Jesus told them, “If you know me – and YOU DO - you will know my Father also.”
If they became lost in their pain and their grief and couldn’t conceive of the indescribable and otherworldly presence of God being with them, they need only remember Jesus - The contours of his face, the sound of his voice, the warmth of his presence, and they would know that God was with them.

Jesus told them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Here he was not speaking to the billions of adherents of a worldwide religion as we imagine him doing today, instead he was speaking to the anxious and concerned men and women gathered around him that night in the upper room.
They were a small group of followers of a renegade Jewish prophet.
Once Jesus was arrested and killed they would no longer be welcome in their home synagogues or in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Their avenue and access to God would essentially be cut off.

Thus, Jesus told them, “No one come to the father except through me.”
As Old Testament scholar, Gail O’Day explains, when Jesus said, “No one” he meant No one of YOU – meaning the disciples and followers gathered in the room that night.
As religious outcasts, the teachings Jesus would leave with them would become their only WAY to God, their only path to truth, their only hope for life.

If we fast forward 60 years after Jesus’ death to the time when John’s gospel was written, we find a community of formerly Jewish Christians who are desperate to establish themselves as being unique and different from the other religious sects.

Jesus’ statement that no one comes to God except through him has moved from being comforting words to his intimate friends to serving as a badge of distinction for the members of John’s community.

It became the conviction of a religious minority who had discovered that its understanding of the truth of God carried with it a great price.
Their faith had gotten them expelled from their religious home, so they would have to carve out a new home, as a distinct people.
John's Gospel expresses "the distinctiveness" of Christians who find their way to God through Jesus.            [Kate Huey paraphrasing Gail O’Day]

Two thousand years later, we still embrace this distinction, as we should, but too many have made it a requirement. And have limited the reach of the good news of Jesus as a result.

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is considered to be on the progressive end of the Christian spectrum, as we have a history of widening God’s embrace to include those who have stood outside the narrow way that others say is the only path to God.
The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the full inclusion of women, and the move towards being Open and Affirming congregations have all resulted in a multitude of stones being thrown our way…both from the outside and the inside.

Each time we widen God’s embrace we get a little more fearful that there is going to be less to go around – because we haven’t yet grasped the message of the gospel – that God’s love is big enough for all of us.

Yet there are so many people out there who are dying to hear this message.
They’re leaving churches and labeling God as irrelevant because they’re not hearing this message.

Now we as inclusive Christians have the opportunity to make ourselves distinct from the others yet again.  By embracing the gospel truth that God’s love and grace is offered unconditionally to all - and by preaching this truth, and living this truth, and believing this truth as if Jesus had spoken it to us himself.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of all the stone throwing.
God is big enough for all of us.
God has a massive house – with many dwelling spaces – I’ll bet there are even some with granite counter tops and walk in closets.

When it comes to being included in God’s embrace, it doesn’t matter if you’re not a regular church-goer, it doesn’t matter if you have doubts, it doesn’t matter if you’re not sure what to believe about Jesus or what to believe about God. 
This is God’s house.

And no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sermon: "Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 11, 2014 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:1-10

“Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open”

As many of you know, my mother and father had a lot of children.
There were ten of us all together.
And my parents made a valiant attempt to contain us in the fenced in back yard of our small Cape Cod style home by installing a swinging metal gate between the back of our house and the front of our detached garage.
When we were small, the gate was supposed to keep us in the yard and out of trouble.

The gate didn’t have a lock, and the latch was easily reachable by a child.  The gate itself was made of chain link, which made it easy to climb over.  But we didn’t dare try.
One look from my father – and the sound of his booming voice telling us to get away from the gate - was enough to keep us well penned in.

Except for my brother Nicholas.
Nicky had a knack for escaping through the gate and getting himself into all sorts of trouble.

When he was 3, he climbed over the gate, got into the garage, found a hammer and a bucket of nails and proceeded to hammer a row of nails into the garage wall – all the way around.
My father spent hours pulling those nails out.
And because they were hammered at shoulder level for a 3-year old, it made for backbreaking work.

When Nicky was 4, he got out through the gate again, and wandered into the front yard where my father was planting a row of small hedges.
Nicky watched for a while and then decided that he would help by grabbing a hedge and handing it to my father to plant.
My dad was actually glad for the help. It kept him from having to get up and down, and it kept Nicky out of trouble.
This father-son system worked well, as my father would simply reach back take the hedge from Nicky, plant it, and then move on to the next one.
It wasn’t until they reached the edge of our property that my father noticed he was planting a lot more hedges then he remembered buying.
It was then that he realized that each time he planted a hedge at his end of the row, Nicky would run back to the beginning of the row, pull an already planted hedge out of the ground and run back and hand it to my father.

When he was 5, Nicky escaped through the gate yet again and this time wandered around the side of the house, where my father was painting the trim around the windows.
My dad had just set down his brush and an open can of green paint and had gone inside to get a drink when Nicky came along.
(you know where this is going)
Sure enough, he came out and found Nicky slathering green paint all over the side of our WHITE house.

My father looked at Nicky, who had green paint running down his arms and all over his clothes, and did what any 1950’s era father would do – He picked him up, went inside, and handed him to my mother.
My mother put Nicky in the bathtub and spent an hour scrubbing the paint off of him before dressing him in clean clothes and sending him to his room. But it wasn’t long before Nicky found his way back outside and was through the gate again.
My father was now at the top of a ladder painting the trim on the upstairs windows, when Nicky appeared below and startled him. The ladder shifted, the paint can fell, and green paint poured out all over the top of Nicky’s head.

After each of these daring escapes, my father and mother blamed each other for not watching Nicky close enough and for allowing him to get through the gate. They both had their hands full and each had assumed that the other would be the gatekeeper while the other was occupied.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I have to say, “Mom, I’m on your side on this one.”

When we consider the gospel text we heard this morning, with its talk of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, the Gate, and the Gatekeeper who keeps us from wandering astray – it’s easy to get so caught up in the competing imagery that we like the disciples may wonder what message, what truth, Jesus meant for us to learn from it. 

Some of us gravitate towards the comforting image of the good shepherd who guides us and pens us in when necessary, because we believe at our core we’re mischievous children or wayward sheep who will inevitably stir up trouble in the world if left on our own.

Some of us hear the word “sheep” and shake our heads in disgust.
Because being compared to a sheep in our culture is not a good thing.
Sheep are thought to be stupid animals. They follow blindly. They don’t think for themselves. They seek to blend into the herd rather than stand out as individuals.

Others still have taken this gospel passage and turned it into a gate itself –
a litmus test that determines who is favored by God and who is not.
It is here that Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
This is the gate that some followers of Christ use to separate the redeemed from the damned, the insiders from the outsiders, the sheep from the goats.

But when we get caught up in the imagery in this gospel passage and imagine Jesus as a parental shepherd, or a gatekeeper for mindless sheep, or as the gate to salvation itself that is accessible to only a few, we miss the key words that Jesus speaks to us that make up the heart of the gospel itself.

In the last verse of this passage, Jesus says,
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Jesus came to bring us life – abundant life.
He came to free us from the fear of loss and suffering and scarcity that causes us to hold tight to our love and our generosity. 

He came to call us each by name and to lead us OUT of the sheep pen and into the green pastures of the world.

He does this by showing us a better way to live.
A counter cultural way to live.
His commandment to love our neighbor, and love our enemy, and love God as much as we love ourselves IS counter cultural.
It was counter cultural in the 1st century and it still is in the 21st century.
Many of us struggle to love ourselves, let alone extend that love to our neighbor, and our enemy.

But the gospel, the good news, keeps reorienting us back to this point.
It really is all about love. It really is that simple.
But it is so hard for us to do.

Which is why we keep getting stuck on the idea that God must be as fickle and as stingy with love and grace as we are.
To be otherwise, is just incomprehensible to us.

There’s a story making the rounds on the internet about an African tribe that has put into practice what many of us find so difficult to do –
They’ve learned what it means to be generous with love and grace.

In this tribe, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe assembles and surrounds them.
For two days, they tell the person all the good things they have done.
The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as good.
Each one of us desires only safety, love, peace and happiness.
But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, we make mistakes.

This tribal community sees those mistakes as a cry for help.
They unite then to lift up the person who has done wrong, to reconnect them with their true nature, to remind them who they really are, until they fully remember the truth that had been temporarily disconnected: "I am good."

In the internet accounts of this amazing ritual, the tribe is not named, and there is some question as to whether the story is factually true, but it is true in the same sense that our story of the Good Shepherd is true.

Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
God created this world so that we may have life, and all the joys and sorrows that come with it.
And the only way we’ll experience that life is by leaving the safety of the pens that keep us contained and restrained and head out into the pasture.
The Good Shepherd is there to lead us, and as long as we follow the sound of his voice – his teachings and the example of his life he has left with us – we won’t wander too far astray.

There’s a motivational poster that some of you may have seen that has a picture of small dog running free in a grassy field – The camera catches him mid-stride with all four feet off the ground and a look of pure joy on his face. The caption on the poster says, “Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open.”

Jesus IS the Shepherd and the gatekeeper – he is the one who opens the gate, calls us by name and leads us out into the open pastures of the world.

Jesus is also the gate–but not in the way that many of us imagine him to be. He is not a gate that swings open and closed to let some in and keep others out - rather he is a gate in the same way that a harbor serves as the gateway to the ocean. 
Just as water flows in and out of the harbor carrying our boats and allowing us to experience both the great expanse of the ocean and the comforting stillness of the harbor, God’s love flows in and out Jesus, and carries us along with it.

If we want to experience and conceptualize what God’s love can accomplish and CREATE and BE when if flows through a human being, we need only look at Jesus.
At the way he lived his life using love as his guiding force,
and at the way he died doing the same, seeking not revenge but forgiveness.

Jesus is a conduit, a gateway to God.  
In him we experience the love and the life that God offers freely, and abundantly to us all.

May we all be encouraged to live each day as if someone left the gate open.
Knowing that on any given day this kind of freedom is going to lead to trouble for some. Some of us won’t be able to resist the urge to pound nails into the garage wall and others will wind up with paint cans dumped on their heads. 
But Jesus calls us out through the gate nonetheless.
With the instruction that we LOVE each other and offer grace to one another, just as God offers it to us.

Jesus came so that we may have life – not a penned in life where we hold tight to our love as if it were a scarce commodity, but an abundant life –
where we lift each other up,
live generously,
and serve as wide open gateways for God’s presence in our world.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Have You Heard The Peepers?

Have You Heard the Peepers?
Pastor’s Message
The Spire - May 2014

       Easter is over. The trumpets have blown. The Hallelujah Chorus has been sung. All the hidden eggs have been found (hopefully). Christ has risen. Indeed.

        It seems such a shame that we carve out 40 days of Lent - smudging our foreheads with ashes, denying ourselves favorite treats, and preparing ourselves for the dirge march through Holy Week - only to have the Easter Sunday “high” wear off faster than the sugar rush of eating too many jelly beans and partaking of too much baked ham. Monday morning we’re back at our desks thinking about widgets and productivity rates, and the following Sunday we head out to the golf course and the mall having done the BIG CHURCH thing the week before. If only we had more time to celebrate the resurrection that we spend 40 days anticipating. Oh, wait. We do have more time! Because Easter is not one day, but 50 days (and that’s 10 more days than Lent, so Easter wins).  We are an Easter people. Which is why our Christian calendar gives us 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

        Now, before you cringe at the thought of spending 50 days wearing your Easter Sunday best and singing Christ the Lord is Risen Today over and over again, lets consider what we mean when we say we are an Easter people. Culled down to three simple words it means this: we have hope.  We believe in resurrection. We believe that suffering and death do not have the last word. No matter how bleak or barren a situation appears, life has a habit of rising from the ashes and beginning anew.

       We wouldn’t live in New England if we didn’t believe this. We wouldn’t put up with the long hard winters if we didn’t delight so much in the promise of spring. The moment the first green shoot pushes through the thawing ground it’s as if we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, and joy. When the midday temperatures begin to climb, every marsh and pond comes alive with the high-pitched chirp of wakening life. “Have you heard the peepers?” becomes the question we ask one another, replacing our tired remarks about the unending cold and our wonderings if it will ever break. As spring creeps forward with each coming day we take note of every change – the budding trees, the lengthening days, the first warm evening that allows us to sit outside and light the barbecue rather than the pellet stove.  It comes natural to us to spend these days delighting over our first sighting of cherry blossoms, forsythia bushes, and humming birds (the bears and the black flies, maybe not so much). 

        So, it makes sense that our Christian faith gives us 50 days of Easter to delight in “Jesus sightings” – and tell the story of the many times that he appeared to the faithful and doubtful alike before he ascended into heaven.  During the 50 days of Easter we find the resurrected Jesus appearing in locked rooms, walking on dusty roads, and serving up breakfast on the beach.  You never know where or when he’s going to pop up. Which reminds us to keep our eyes open to the ways that Jesus appears unexpectedly in our everyday lives. In the child who asks us to play a game when we have so much work to get done, in the faces we see every Tuesday we serve at the SHARE community meal, in the neighbor who mows our lawn because we no longer have the energy to do it ourselves.  We see Jesus in those who serve us and those we’re called to serve. And at the end of long hard day - and a long cold winter - who doesn’t want to see a sign of resurrection pushing up through the frozen ground? 

       Have you heard the peepers? Take all the time you want to delight in their song…even 50 days.  Christ has risen, indeed! Halleluiah and amen!

Peace and blessings,


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sermon: "The Road Not Taken"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 4, 2014
Luke 24:13-35

“The Road Not Taken”

It had all been one huge, colossal mistake.

We were chasing after a dream, calling ourselves disciples, following yet another Messiah who turned out to not be what he had claimed to be.
Three years ago, Cleopas and I were walking this very road,
between Emmaus and Jerusalem, when we first laid eyes upon him.
A man named Jesus, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
He was average height, and a little on the skinny side if you ask me –
and at first glance he didn’t command much of a presence, yet he was surrounded by a crowd of people…and they were hanging on his every word.

Cleopas and I stopped to listen – because we were curious as to what this man could possibly be saying to draw such an attentive crowd.
This was our first mistake.
We never should have stopped.
We should have kept right on walking.
Better yet, we should have chosen an entirely different road to take to Jerusalem that day.
The winding seven-mile road we chose was longer than the main road, but rather than dodge the crowds we decided to take the road less traveled by.

And it had been one huge, colossal mistake.

If we had never taken that road, we would have never run across Jesus.
We wouldn’t have stopped to listen, we wouldn’t have gotten caught up in the tantalizing promises he made of a world in which simple, bottom-of-the-food-chain folks like us would one day be redeemed,
a world where we would be free of oppression and pain, a world where the humble would come to power and the powerful would be humbled.
If we had never taken that road we would not have cast our bags down right then and there - leaving the tools of our trade behind, leaving our families behind - and pledged to follow this man from city to city and to every village in between, to be disciples, to carry forward his message of the coming Kingdom of God.

But we did take that road.
And now, three years later we find ourselves walking that same road, between Jerusalem and Emmaus.
This time with shock and grief etched on our faces.
The only weight we carry on our backs this time is the overwhelming pain of having lost our friend, our teacher, our Messiah…our only hope of obtaining freedom and redemption.

As we walk along and encounter people on the road, the flow of every conversation gravitates towards the events of the last three days.
Did you hear about the man who was executed by the Romans?
The one who claimed to be the King of the Jews?
Did you see how he was impaled up on that cross like a common criminal while they taunted him, daring him to call upon his God to come down and save him?
Did you see how much he suffered, how he cried out in pain, as if the Son of God, the true Messiah would ever meet such a fate.
And did you hear how his followers had run off – out of fear for their lives, and because they were too ashamed to show their faces in public.

Little did these travelers know that WE were two of Jesus’ followers, here walking among them - with our backs turned towards Jerusalem, and our heads hung low in despair…..and dreading the taunting that awaits us when we return home. For we have been proven as fools for giving up all we had, to follow a fallen Messiah.   
I don’t blame Jesus.
How could I? 
He was an amazing man, with a good heart, and I loved him so. 
I think he truly believed that he was the Messiah, just as we did.
But something had obviously gone seriously wrong.

But some among us will not let his soul rest in peace, they are determined to squeeze whatever hope they can out his death.
Just this morning, some women in our group went to Jesus’ tomb and discovered that the stone had been rolled away and the body was missing! The women claimed angels had told them that Jesus was alive!

This is just wishful thinking, of course.
Resurrection of the dead is not possible.
But some will not believe this. They want to believe that Jesus still lives.
Because they cannot face the fact that we all have been duped and deceived, whether intentionally or not, and we are now left standing on our own, without a leader to save us, without even hope to sustain us.

And oh how we had hoped… how can I even begin to convey to you how much we had hoped?
We had hoped that he, who lived out his faith openly without fear of persecution, would lead our people to a life of freedom.
We had hoped that he, who spoke of putting away the sword, would lead our people to a life of peace.
We had hoped that he, who healed every kind of disease and deformity, would lead our people to a life of wholeness.
But these hopes were nothing but foolish wishes.
Those in power had shown us what happens to those who dare to dream of freedom, peace and wholeness.

Why do we insist on keeping this fantasy alive with tales of empty tombs and resurrected messiahs? Why must we keep rehashing this story amongst ourselves and with every passerby?

Even now, a stranger has come along side us and has asked what it is that we have been discussing. As Cleopas yet again recounts the events of the last three days, I’m noticing that there is something oddly familiar about this man standing before us, yet I cannot place his face.

The stranger is quoting from scripture, telling us that is was necessary-- necessary--for the Messiah to suffer and die, for this is the only way that the glory of God will truly be revealed.
What does he mean by this?
He reminds us of the words of Isaiah who said the Messiah would be a suffering servant…and by his bruises we will be healed.  [Isaiah 53:4-5]
The man tells us how death holds no power over God, and that our savior still lives, just as the women had said.

As I listen to this stranger speak, my heart begins to heave and burn inside my chest, yet I cannot explain why.

When we reach Emmaus, the stranger turns to go on his way and without hesitation we invite him to eat with us in our family home. It’s getting dark, and this road is not safe for a solitary traveler at night.

As we gather around the table, the stranger picks up the freshly baked bread we’ve placed before him.
With the skill of rabbi he blesses it and breaks it…and suddenly it becomes strikingly clear why this man has seemed so familiar….and why just being in his presence has made our hearts burn with joy from within.
I look across the table, and I am staring into the face of Jesus.
And in an instant he is gone.

And I am suddenly aware how fortunate it is that I chose to be on this road to Emmaus today, and how fortunate it was that I chose to walk this same road three years before.
To have chosen a different road, at either time, would have been a huge, colossal mistake.


The story we just heard is of course an embellished version of the gospel account of Jesus appearing on the road to Emmaus. Whenever I hear this gospel story I can’t help but also hear the familiar words of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Often when we step off the beaten path to see where the road less traveled by leads we’re left wondering if we’ve made a wise decision.
All the familiar signposts and landmarks that we’ve come to rely on are no longer there.
With no way to tell if we’re headed in the right direction, or if we’re just walking in circles, it’s tempting to want to turn back,
to return to what is familiar and known.

In our Gospel story we find our disciples longing for the lives they once had.
The lives they had given up based on an assurance, a promise, that the world they were living in had the potential to be very different.

This is the same promise that each of us embraces through the act of our baptism, in the moment we become a member of the body of Christ.
As Christians we pledge to change our lives.
To leave our old ways behind.
To embody the love of God and the teachings of Jesus, and in doing so, to change the world…to help build the Kingdom of God.

Now to be honest, the desire to be a trail blazing, world changing, embodiment of God’s radically inclusive love is not what draws many of us to the Christian church.
We come for communal support, for fellowship, for an inspiring message.
We come for the music, for the religious education we want for our children.
We come seeking refuge, respite, and redemption from a world that often beats us up and knocks us down on a regular basis.

The church, the body of Christ, can and does offer all of these things….
but we have to know that when we claim the name of Christian we sign up for all that trail blazing, world changing, embodiment of God’s radically inclusive love stuff as well.
It’s kind of a package deal.

But we know being a trail blazing Christian is not an easy road to walk.
Which is why very few of us do.
Most of us prefer to be over on the main road, along with everyone else…because we like the company, and because it’s less likely that we’re going to get lost or run into the kind of trouble that trail blazers often do.
It’s also much easier to find our way when we have someone directly in front of us to follow.

Which is why the disciples felt so lost when Jesus was taken from them.
They were willing to give up all they had to become disciples, but how could they be disciples of Jesus if Jesus was no longer there to lead the way?

Cleopas and his unnamed friend do have quite a tale to tell, even without the embellishment.
In Luke’s Gospel they are the first to see Jesus after his Resurrection.
They are the first to look into Jesus’ eyes and to feel hope flood back into their parched souls.
Just five minutes before encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus they were awash in tremendous hopelessness and grief.
And as anyone who has experienced such grief or hopelessness knows,
once you fall into that pit it is easy to convince yourself that you will never find your way out.

The disciple’s feet were carrying them forward, but their minds and their bodies had shifted into autopilot.
They were going through the motions, returning home to get on with their lives, with the rawness of Jesus’ death, just three days before, still tearing them up from the inside out.
The community of believers they had hoped to build was disintegrating around them – everyone was leaving, giving up, returning back to their former lives.
The leader they had hoped would carry them to freedom and redemption turned out to not be the Messiah they believed he would be.
Messiah’s are not supposed to die,
especially not at the hands of mere human beings.

But as we know, Jesus didn’t die.
And he appeared to the disciples just long enough to prove it.
As a stranger he walked with them, he talked with them, and he broke bread with them.    But the moment they recognized him, he disappeared.

Perhaps because it was in that moment that they realized that Jesus would always be with them.  They did not need to have him physically present to continue to live as a community of believers.
They demonstrated this when they invited this stranger in to eat with them. Even in their grief, their concern was with the safety and comfort of others.
Their hope was dying, their community was dying, but their faith - their love of God, and their love for their neighbor - was as strong as ever.

I can almost imagine Jesus casting a knowing smile their way just before he vanished from their sight.
As if to say, you don’t need to see me, you don’t need to touch me, you don’t need to hear me tell you what to do. You already know what to do.

Cleopas and his unnamed friend left Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday as forlorn disciples, fringe followers of an executed Messiah, and by the time their evening meal had ended back in Emmaus they had been transformed into preachers, teachers, and evangelizers of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Resurrection is meant to have the same effect on us.
It’s meant to lift us out of the fog of grief or fear, the longing we have for what could have been, or what once was. To spur us to dare to imagine another way of being the body of Christ in the world.

But sometimes we get stuck on Good Friday and never get to Easter.
The stone is rolled away, but we choose to stay in the tomb, searching for the body, hoping to breath life back into it. Not realizing that Jesus is out there, alive and well, walking on the road that we are too afraid to take.

I don’t know about you, but I want to meet Jesus walking along that road.
I want to feel my heart burning inside of me like those disciples did.
I want to be able to say that I am a believer in the Resurrection,
not because I have seen the living Christ with my own eyes,
but because I have seen the living Christ reflected in the eyes of others.

 My hope is that one day

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.