Sunday, May 8, 2011

In the Breaking of the Bread

So I know last month I said was my last sermon at Bernardsville United Methodist Church in New Jersey, where I have been preaching once a month as part of my supervised ministry, but I was lucky enough to preach another Sunday. I give thanks for the wonderful people at that church for loving me and welcoming me. They gave me a going away gift and were just so affirming! And I thank Rev. Dr. Tanya Linn Bennett, my supervisor, for inviting me to be a part of this church community this last semester. It has really been a healing and empowering experience for me.

Now, this is one of those weeks where there are a million things to preach about in response to current events. And the text for this week is such a rich text that you can preach on so many different aspects of it. And today is Mother's Day. So this week when I began preparing the sermon, all these things were rolling around in my mind, which certainly affected how I read a text. So if it seems strange to you that when I first read this passage from Luke I thought of the ways our Christian family comes together, just bear with me and let's see where it goes.

Scripture: Luke 24: 13-35 1 from the Inclusive Bible Translation

That same day, two of the disciples were making their way to a village called Emmaus--- which was about seven miles from Jerusalem--- and discussing all that had happened as they went.

While they were discussing these things, Jesus approached and began to walk along with them, though they were kept from recognizing Jesus, who asked them, "What are you discussing as you go on your way?"

They stopped and looked sad. One of them, Cleopas by name, asked him, "Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who doesn't know the things that have happened these last few days?"

Jesus said to them, "What things?"

They said, "Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people--- how our chief priests and leaders delivered him up to be condemned to death and crucified him. We were hoping that he was the One who would set Israel free. Besides all this, today--- the third day since these things happened--- some women of our group have just brought us some astonishing news. They were at the tomb before dawn and didn't find the body; they returned and informed us that they had seen a vision of angels who declared that Jesus was alive. Some of our number went to the tomb and found it just as the women said, but they didn't find Jesus."

Then Jesus said to them, "What little sense you have! How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have announced! Didn't the Messiah have to undergo all this to enter into glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted for them every passage of scripture which referred to the Messiah. By now they were near the village they were going to, and Jesus appeared to be going further. But they said eagerly, "Stay with us. It's nearly evening--- the day is practically over." So the savior went in and stayed with them.

After sitting down with them to eat, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, then broke the bread and began to distribute it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, who immediately vanished from their sight.

Then they said to one another, "Weren't our hearts burning inside us as this one talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?" Then they got up immediately and returned to Jerusalem, where they found the Eleven and the rest of the company assembled. They were greeted with, "Christ has risen! It's true! Jesus has appeared to Simon!" Then the travelers recounted what had happened on the road, and how they had come to know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon: In the Breaking of the Bread

Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, you come again to us this week,
walking along the road with us though we don't recognize you.
May you walk alongside us now, as we explore this scripture together this morning. Amen.

Two people are walking along the road together. The text calls them disciples, so I at least think the text is referring to one of the twelve until we hear the name Cleopas. Hmmm. Peter, Thomas, a couple of Judases then a couple of Jameses, John, Andrew, Philip, Matthew, Simon, and my personal favorite because it is the least common name Bartholomew. No Cleopas in there. So Cleopas is one of the many who, like the women who are mentioned but so rarely named, are there following Jesus alongside the Twelve Disciples. And so is his companion, of whom we have even less information. All we know of these characters then is that they are followers of Jesus.

So our next question is where is it that they are going? Emmaus, the text tells us. A village seven miles from Jerusalem. We don't know much at all about the village itself, even today. And we do not know why they are going. Is that where these two disciples are from? We just don't know. So we have to imagine. I thought maybe they running from all the despair turned confusion in Jerusalem. But why would they run away from the other disciples? Of course, it is always unfair to read too much into the text. We have no idea why they were leaving Jerusalem. But in approaching this text on Mother's Day, I couldn't help but see these disciples leaving Jerusalem as them leaving the other disciples, leaving their family. As we have seen throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls the disciples to leave families and not look back. In the Gospel of Luke, we read,
To another [Jesus] said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."2
These are harsh words we think today, but they illustrate for us that this estrangement between family and home would force the disciples to make a family of their own choosing, a family out of those who followed Jesus.

Now this was a dysfunctional family, to say the least. Simon Peter was impulsive, and I always pictured him as an attention seeker and loud. The twelve disciples argued amongst themselves--- even over who was the greatest.3 This collection of people ranged from fishermen, to the formerly possessed, to tax collectors, to wives of politicians--- it was quite a motley crew. And perhaps the moment in which the family was most dysfunctional, as is the case for so many of our families, was the moment in which they needed each other most: death, the crucifixion of Jesus. But many were in hiding. Many were still silent. Many were in denial.

And so perhaps Cleopas and his companion left Jerusalem because Jesus was dead, and so there was nothing left holding them to the other disciples. Yes, they had heard rumors that Jesus was alive, but the last thing they say to this stranger on the road about what had happened to Jesus in Jerusalem was, "but they didn't find Jesus." The body was gone, yes, but they didn't find Jesus. So maybe, Cleopas and the other disciple are leaving this confusion, leaving the dysfunctionality, to try and move on with their lives. Maybe they were going to go back to their old lives, trying to return everything to normal, the way it was before they met Jesus.

If that is the case, Jesus is not so interested in letting everything return to normal. And so he walks with them along the road. He questions them, draws out of them their story of all that has happened. And he shares his own interpretations of the scripture to shed light on what has happened. Then, he turns to go, but he is stopped.

Stay with us.

They have not yet recognized Jesus as their teacher. But they do recognize something familiar within this strange companion, something that makes them reach out to him, to bring him into their home, to invite him to supper. To make him family. Because that is what they are doing here. Hospitality was an important aspect of Near East culture at that time, but taking the concept of hospitality and expanding it to cover not just family and community members but the lowest of the low was something Jesus had taught them. And here they were inviting a complete stranger in with them to eat. I see echoes here of Jesus' teachings, like this one for Matthew: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.4

Maybe that family thing really did stick with them. And maybe Jesus' presence there on the road that day was a mothering presence, one to help the disciples remember that they have had a glimpse of the kingdom, a glimpse of how to live together as a family, and so they cannot go back to life as it used to be.

This semester I had a kind of road to Emmaus experience. I took a class at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, New Jersey's only women's prison. Drew has a program in which Drew professors will teach classes in the prison, half the class will be "outside" students, and half will be "inside" students, inmates at the prison. This class was called Race, Ethics, and Women's Lives, and we talked about everything from clothing and food to violence, breast cancer, and sexuality. One class was devoted to motherhood. We were asked the question what mothers you? A lot of us were confused by this question at first, but the point was that there are many people and aspects of culture that mother us, that give birth to us, form us, and nourish us. Now mothering is not always a positive thing--- for instance, my professor thought that prison could be a mother, a formative experience whose lessons are not healthy ones.

But this class in the prison mothered me in a healthy way this semester. At the beginning of the year, I felt like I imagine those disciples did. While I never wanted to throw in the towel or anything, I wasn't happy the beginning of the year. I was taking too many classes in the fall, doing supervised ministry, I didn't get to see Aaron, who is my partner, or the rest of my family very much. I was stressed and I just wasn't taking care of myself. Because of this, seminary became not the joyful challenge it was my first year, but rather something I had to get through, something I had to get over. And there were many things like working here this semester that has made the Spring much more happy for me, but this class in the prison was one of the places in particular along the road where I felt like Jesus was walking beside me. Like I was being pushed not to spend so much time studying alone in my room trying to just get this year over with, but being out with family, with friends. Remembering that Jesus calls us now and not after we are finished school. I felt like I was being nudged back to face Jerusalem--- not just to get through the rest of seminary but to really start living that kingdom vision I saw Jesus to be calling me to--- that kingdom vision I saw in class.

The women in the class were Jesus, walking alongside me on the road throughout the semester, showing me great hospitality, even though I was worried we would have little in common. The women in the class, both inside and outside, opened my eyes to seeing God in new places, like within the khaki uniforms of incarcerated women. I felt that driving from Clinton after class every week with the other outside students, we would say to one another, "Weren't our hearts burning inside us as these women talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?" As we heard the stories of these women, as they greeted us with hospitality, sharing their little juice boxes and packets of off-brand Nilla Wafers that had a weird aftertaste, I felt what those disciples must have felt on the journey to Emmaus when Jesus showed up and broke bread with them.

My mom in her Mother's Day sermons sometimes quotes this piece that begins with a verse fro the Gospel of John that she read in a magazine years ago:
"In truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. What is hope if not belief in rebirth -- our own and our neighbors? Because we glimpse another kingdom, we live with different expectations. Caught in stormy passages, we are part of a birthing that is beyond our control and our imaginings. We are all in labor. We are all midwives."5
I think this quotation is beautiful and really fits with my understanding of what happened in that prison class for me this semester. It was one of the many moments of renewal and rebirth in my life. Jesus calls us to these moments of rebirth--- of ourselves and our neighbors. Too often, we like those disciples on the road to Emmaus are tired and confused. We might know that Jesus is alive, but maybe we can't find him. Those moments of rebirth are when we see that he is walking along the road with us. And yes, it is often stormy, and always out of our control, but those moments of rebirth remind us that as Christians we have glimpsed another kingdom, another way of living as a family, and we cannot let that vision go. And so we all have to enter into labor, we all have to become midwives to bring in that vision of new living that Jesus has shown us.

As Jesus is teaching Cleopas and the other disciple on that road to Emmaus, they were reborn and reminded that they are midwives. They can't leave the work that needs to be done, no matter how confused or scared they are. And they realize that, even before they realize who Jesus is, that is why they say, "Stay with us," when it looks as though Jesus will go on ahead. They are remembering that work that begins with the hospitality, with making Jesus part of their family by breaking bread with him as he taught them to do.

And it was in the breaking of the bread that their eyes were opened. In this communion moment where we who are many become one body, become one family, dysfunctional as it may seem, called to the work of bringing in the kingdom of God. Cleopas and the other disciple turned right around that night to go share the Good News with their brothers and sisters.

Then the travelers recounted what had happened on the road, and how they had come to know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

Let us pray,

Help our hearts to be Spirit-filled, O Christ.
Help us to burn with passion for you and for your people throughout the world.
May our passion ignite flames of justice and hope in the midst of hopelessness, pain, and confusion.
May the warmth of our fire be a sign of your mothering presence in the world.
In the name of the Risen Christ, Amen.6