New Life When You Are Walking Away

Hello, and happy Easter, friends!

I want to start with a bit of a good news/bad news moment, maybe depending on how old you are.

I read a while back that at least according to one large social science study, we know what on average is the least happy age in people’s lives.

Anyone have a guess when that is? Least happy age, on average.

Apparently, it’s 47.2 years old. 

Now obviously this is just an average, but for me…

I turned 47 in 2020 – great year, right? 

2020 was gonna be a big year, like the best year. 

I had done some serious inner life work in my early 40s, and I was feeling kind of happy and free those days. And our church had done some hard change work during those same years. That had been really stressful. But by early 2020, things at church here too were also kind of awesome. Probably the happiest, healthiest season I’d seen in our church as a pastor. And I had my first sabbatical ever coming up in the summer. And our family had been saving up for years for our first ever trip to China, where our Chinese-American kids had never been. 

Our oldest kid was graduating from high school that year, and that big trip together just afterwards – it all was going to be epic.

Until it wasn’t. Hello, Covid. And goodbye, everything else. Our schools shut down. Church shut down. Everything was shutting down. We all thought we’d chill out for a couple of weeks and let this weird virus blow over, but then it didn’t. 

And the season of canceling began.

We canceled the trip to China, and then we canceled the smaller trip we’d booked instead. 

School was canceled, kids’ prom, graduations, canceled. My sabbatical, canceled. Everything, canceled. And we all worried – just how bad would this get? Who would we lose? Just how much would this hurt? 

Some of you all were out there being heroic as essential workers in that season. Me, I was figuring out how to properly disinfect our groceries every couple of weeks, and how to be a professional gatherer of community when people weren’t allowed to get together. 

We were trying best we could as a church to respond to isolation and fear and grief and then to a movement for racial justice. It was an important time, and in some ways, we did well by each other and by what was happening in this world.

But it was hard and tiring, and then right after we sent our oldest kid off to college. While I was tired and drained, I ended up in a weird and stupid extended family conflict that was the last straw for me. 

I was done and I found myself dreaming of walking away from it all. 

Like, maybe I could peace out on the people that had done me wrong and just be done with them. Maybe I could walk away from the sources of conflict in my life.

And I’ll admit to you all that for the first time ever in that fall of 2020, I was wondering what it would be like to walk away from being a pastor too. I found myself daydreaming about exit ramps and ways I could live a smaller, simpler life where I could nurse my disappointments in peace or carve out a little world with my family where nobody and nothing could hurt us any more.  

So yeah, 47.2 years old landed right on time for me, most definitely one of the least happy moments of my life. 

Three, four years later, though, thinking about where I find myself now in a new decade, it’s striking just how often help found me. It’s striking just how often new perspective and new growth found me. It’s striking where love would not let me go, where new life found me. 

Again and again in these years, it’s seemed like I’ve met the risen Jesus, coming my way and bringing me back to peace.

So friends, this Easter, I want to talk about the risen Jesus and new life when you’ve given up and you’re walking away. 

Each of the four gospels in the Bible tells the resurrection story differently. Here’s a story that the book of Luke tells. 

Luke 24:13-24 (Common English Bible)

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.

14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened.

15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey.

16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.

20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.

21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago.

22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning

23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.

24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

We’ll pick up more of the story in a minute. 

I think Cleopas and his friend are 47.2 years old. Maybe. They are also colonized oppressed people who have lost what they thought was their way forward. 

They’re disappointed, grieving. 

We had hoped, they say.

We had hoped. 

They thought the promises of God for their liberation, their ancestors’ dreams, were coming true.

And now they are walking away.

They are walking away from Jerusalem.

They’re walking away from God, given that the truth they thought they knew about God has let them down.

And they’re walking away from the life they thought they’d have – victorious, fulfilled, redeemed, as they put it. 

Then Jesus shows up like that friend of yours who never pays attention to the news.

He’s like –

you all seem bummed out. What’s wrong?

What’s wrong?!? Who are you to ask that kind of question? “What’s not wrong?”

they say. 

Friends, what are you walking away from today? 

And where do you feel like you’re living in a time of cataclysm that if people would wake up and pay attention, they’d see it like you do?

Beyond that terrible moment at 47.2 years old, I had spent parts of my 40s walking away from a lot of things. Walking away from the easy lives or the happiness I thought my kids would have. Walking away from religious systems and communities that I’d once called home. Walking away from some bad ideas and some old stories about myself that weren’t true and didn’t set me free but were still hard to leave behind.

In my life as a pastor among you, I hear so many stories of disappointment and walking away. Stories of people walking away from a dream, disappointed with where they haven’t yet arrived at this time of life. I hear people walking away from ways of being in their marriage, or ways of being in their bodies, or ways of being in their faith that weren’t walking out? And sometimes you’re glad to be making a change, but dang, if it isn’t hard?

So much walking away.

And just about everyone I talk to feels like we are living in times of cataclysm – big and scary threats and changes that aren’t going anywhere. A lot of us name the cataclysm differently. We don’t all rank order the worst, most apocalyptic things going on in the world the same way. But most of us have got a list, don’t we?

I was spending time with some engaged and newly married couples recently talking about whether or not they’d have kids and if they did, what that would be like. And someone brought up, as someone always did these days, that maybe it’s a bad time in history to have kids. Maybe the future is too bleak. 

And not everyone was leaning this way, but no one challenged the premise. 

This is part of why I love this resurrection story, that it seems like times of cataclysm – when all is wrong with the world – and times of disappointment – when we’re walking away from our dreams, disappointed – are perfect times for the risen God to appear to us again. 

Let’s pick up the rest of the story. 

Luke 24:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about.

26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.

29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

Let’s look at how Jesus appears, how resurrection appears to these two friends who are walking away. 

Jesus is a little spicy with them because loving as Jesus is, he doesn’t want to nourish our dysfunction or our bad ideas. Jesus is always kind, but he is not always nice. There’s a lot in the world and if we’re honest plenty in us too that needs interrupting, and nice doesn’t interrupt very well. So Jesus takes the time to interrupt their story. 

And in this case, he’s like,

well, with what you know, walking away makes sense. But there’s a lot you don’t know.

And he goes on to tell them.

You didn’t know that suffering always had to be part of the story.

You didn’t know how long good things can take, how un-straight the road to them always is.

You didn’t know that new life usually takes some death to clear the way. 

You didn’t know.

And in the coming to terms with all they didn’t know, these two friends find room for Jesus to tell them the truth.

That’s one of the benefits of walking away. Of disillusionment, disenchantment. 

Sometimes it makes room for the truth. Sometimes it lays the ground for resurrection. 

One of the weird things about Easter is that Jesus rose in secret. No one saw it. Too dang early. (Jesus!) Whatever happened physically, scientifically, whatever the mechanics were, whatever the nature of Jesus’ risen body, no one was there for it. 

Our faith just tells us: God raised Jesus from the dead. 

But then the fun starts. The resurrected Christ appears to people as they’re hiding out or walking away. Two disappointed friends are walking away in midlife, and Jesus appears as a companion who wonders what they’re thinking. Jesus’  grieving fishermen friends are out on the lake at dawn unable to catch anything, and Jesus appears frying up fish on the beach. Two people welcome a stranger to a simple, small meal in their home, and Jesus is recognized as he breaks bread, blesses it, and offers it to them. Two friends tell a story of their disappointment, how all is lost, and Jesus appears as he offers them a better perspective and they find their hearts on fire.

That last one happened to me too. 

During that awful fall and the year beyond, a few friends walked with me and listened, good help and provision and counsel came my way. And by 2022, getting toward the end of my 40s, some things were shifting in my life, but I was still kind of stuck internally. And I noticed this as I was talking with a friend of mine.

I met up with that friend around the anniversary of that last straw conflict in 2020, which was also around the anniversary of another big trauma in my life, and I asked my friend if we could talk about it that day. And as we did, I shared with him how everyone was doing, myself included. And I was like:

things are better, but there’s so far to go, and that’s so disappointing. 

And my friend listened to me, and he let me know he understood how big this is to me, how heavy the ache is. 

But he also asked me:

can I share what I hear as you tell these stories? 

And I told him:

please do.

And he said:

it’s your life, your truth. I don’t want to tell you what to think, but what I hear are stories of resurrection. 

And he told a different story of my life than what I was seeing – same facts, but different angle. How despite suffering, this person was alive and not dead, and this relationship may be cut off but wow, how this other one was better than ever, how so many things were so much better than I could have imagined not too long ago.

And he said:

I know you hope for more, I know you hope for more but remember that when Jesus rose, he rose with scars. And you have your scars too. I see them. But a scarred resurrection life is still life, isn’t it? It’s still life. It’s a miracle. You live within a miracle.

And as he shared the truth he saw, I was tearing up because my heart was on fire with the truth of all this.

So many signs of life. The buds and shoots of resurrection blossoming everywhere. 

Because Jesus rising from the dead is not only an event in history. It’s not only the foundation of a faith in which we stand here. The resurrection of Christ is also an invitation to a new way of being in the world, where we can have reasonable faith and hope that a way will be made where there is no way. That disappointments and loss are gardens where extraordinary new things can be cultivated. That crappy year after crappy year in midlife can be an invitation to the work of renaissance. That every dying seed tucked into the ground is just waiting to burst back out with life. 

Recently, I’ve found myself with a new spiritual habit. I call it looking for signs of resurrection. Where my instincts tell me there’s no way forward, I wonder what way is going to appear. When something in me or someone I love seems lost or stuck, I’m asking God –

where can I be seeding and watering the next resurrection? 

I’m looking for stories of resurrection. Because resurrection is looking for us. 

Let’s finish our story.

Luke 24:33-36 (Common English Bible)

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!”

35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Ha, here it is again. Tell one story of resurrection, and another may be right on its tail. Jesus keeps appearing, in weird and funny ways.

My wife Grace and I heard an interview once with a strange, old fundamentalist lady who had this funny phrase she’d say. She’d say:

Jesus is a tricksy one. 

It’s a silly, weird phrase, and I have no idea what she meant, but it’s stuck with me, and now I think it’s true. Nothing Jesus says or does in the gospel’s resurrection stories is predictable. And I think the stories of new life that the Spirit of the Risen Christ is working on today aren’t predictable either. 

We call God our creator, and if the Spirit of the Risen Christ is anything, it is endlessly creative. That Jesus is a tricksy one. 

When we hit our bad days and our bad years and our walls of awful stuckness and discouragement, we don’t usually feel like new life is on the horizon. 

So even if we’re walking away, we are given tangible symbols, sacraments by which to remember Christ, and to stir faith and hope in his risen life among us.

One of these we call communion, a tiny little meal we take in worship every week, where we remember Jesus, broken out for the life of this world that we could be renewed and that we could become the body of Christ ourselves, blessed, and given for the healing of the world. 

Another of these we call baptism. We are about to have the joy of baptizing six people with water. And so a moment on what this means. What this means for these six, what it means for you if you’ve been baptized before, or if you haven’t and you want to – just let us know! – what it would mean. 

In baptism, we are welcomed into a faith of resurrection.

In baptism, the cleansing water of forgiveness and healing tells us that we are never the sum of our worst days. 

In baptism, the water which represents the Spirit of God tells us that God will be with us always, that the faithful, loving accompaniment of our God is everlasting.

And the water we go under tells us too that if we die with Christ, we will live with him. That new life after death is the pattern of our present and the destiny of our future.

We’re not promised an easy road in this life. The faith of the risen Christ doesn’t even protect us or our world for the cataclysms that come, mostly the ones our species brings upon ourselves. 

There will keep coming times we want to walk away from.

But the faith of the risen Christ assures us these times are not the end of the story but the beginning of knowing again that we live within a miracle, that our life is again a miracle of goodness, another impossibly great story we wouldn’t have seen coming. 

Pray with me.

Spirit of the Risen and kind of tricksy Christ, fall afresh on us. 

In the taking of communion, in the bearing witness to baptism, in the kind  presence of a friend, in the sharing of a simple meal, in the generosity of every hospitality, in the truth that comes to us and sets our hearts on fire, remind us that we live within a miracle, that we are a miracle, and that with the help of God, the pattern of our present and our future can always be new life. Amen.