Well, again, a very Happy Easter to all of you! It is a joy to be celebrating this day with each of you. And it’s my joy to share a few words about the events and message of Easter even for downcast people of certain doom. Let me start by praying for just a moment.
Well, it is again so good to be here with you this week. Last Sunday, my daughter Julianna and I were away at my friends’ church in Pittsburgh. It’s a much more formal situation there – there are robes and choirs and an enormous organ – lots of pomp, lots that is beautiful. But I am also very glad to be home with my community, my family, at Reservoir.
I was in Pittsburgh because I was on a college tour with my daughter, visiting a few schools around the northeast. And I have got to say I am so proud of her. You know, as parents, you send your kid – soon your young adult out into the world – whether you’re sending them off to higher education or to their first full-time employment, or to any other first adult set of experiences, there’s so much to be excited about, but wow, also so many fears hiding inside that transition. What if this or that awful thing happens? What if my kid fails to launch well into adult life? We worry, and kids, I know you think we don’t need to worry so much, and parents of older kids, you’ve told me that we need to get our stuff together, because the worries of a parent don’t stop – they can just go on and on through life.
Still, this is a unique season in the life of a parent, and it’s easy to worry. But wow, as I listened to my daughter’s questions she was asking, and heard her reflections on what she is and isn’t ready for, and watched her start to make choices about her future, I thought – she is so ready for what is next, and I’m really, really proud of her.
All this took me back to myself when I was turning 17, and when I was getting ready to leave home. In my case, I too was heading off to to a college, but where my daughter was asking about class sizes, and athletic programs and educational philosophy, I was more like…. will anyone take me, and where was it sunniest when I visited campus? I knew next to nothing about colleges. I tell my kids about this and they wonder: Dad, were you really that naive? And I say: yes, I was.
I headed off to school hopeful but without a clue, and then everything fell apart.
I decided to transfer colleges during my first weekend away from home. And it only got worse from there.
I was shocked by campus life, by how boozy it was, by how wealthy everyone seemed to be, and by how little I knew about finding my way forward. I thought college life would be this idyllic intellectual, feel-good experience, and I was disappointed by what I found and wanted out.
I had also become an avid churchgoer during high school, and so I tried out a few churches in this college town. One of them I went to had a Vietnam vet in full uniform preaching in front of a big American flag. And I don’t know, maybe it was Veteran’s Day weekend and I can get behind supporting our veterans of course. But this one was preaching about the greatness of America more than anything about God, and his sermon peppered by anti-commie racial slurs. That was not was I looking for, and so I was downcast about church, and I got up in the middle of service and walked away.
Leaving home, by myself, I also for the first time came face to face with the pain and the problems I carried around. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d need a therapist, and I’d need some serious coming to terms with myself, and I didn’t know how to do that. So I wasn’t just leaving behind my dream of college, I wasn’t just leaving church behind, but I was leaving behind my illusion that all was OK with my life. And that – I assure you – made me downcast.
But you know what, scared and lonely and disillusioned as a I was, it was then and there, leaving home, leaving church, leaving my illusions about my happy life and my happy future that God became real and good to me like never before.
Today I want to talk about how so often God finds us when we’re walking away. How hope can grip us when we’re downcast. And how life can rise out of death and certain doom.
We heard in the beginning of today’s reading that there were women in mourning who met messengers of God early one Sunday, and the unnamed, mysterious men tell them – Everything is well. Life has won. Jesus has risen. Go see for yourselves.
But most people in the story can’t believe this. They certainly don’t trust the women.
So weird things start to happen, weird things, in Luke’s account, happening among people who are downcast and disappointed and certain about all that has been lost.
Luke’s Easter story features two students of Jesus walking away from Jerusalem, away from the holy city of ancient Israel, away from the temple. They’re walking away as dropouts from their enrollment in Jesus’ rabbinical school too. They’re stunned by the betrayal they experienced in their group of friends. They’re disillusioned by the great shame of Jesus’ suffering and failure. And they’re disappointed that they hadn’t seen the political revolution they were looking for – the redemption of their country. Relationships, suffering, and politics have left them downcast. And now they are leaving Jerusalem, where nothing good has happened, as they leave their hopes behind.
I relate to these guys as I think of the times in my life, like that first year of college, where I’ve had disappointments just pile up on me, and where I’ve walked away from people and plans and hopes, downcast.
And so I find it interesting when Jesus’ first word upon listening to their woes is a bracing one: Fools! He says to them.
Fools! That’s not what we’re expecting from Jesus, is it?
It’s not very nice, to call someone a fool.
But Jesus isn’t always nice. Jesus is always kind and loving and respectful, but he is in fact not always nice. He’s downright feisty and surprising. And here, he calls his friends, his old students fools.
Jesus is telling them they’re missing out. They’re missing the point of his life, certainly missing the point of his suffering and crucifixion. They can’t have Easter joy and hope – not just because they don’t know Jesus is alive, not just because they don’t realize that the man they’re talking to is Jesus, but because they have misunderstood Jesus’ whole life.
They’re not fools to be downcast, to be upset by all that occured in Jerusalem. They’re not fools to be struck with grief and disillusioned in the face of all the pain and suffering they’ve seen. They’re not even fools to be walking away. All this is to be alive, to be human.
But Jesus is saying, come on, friends, you are fools if you abandon hope because all of this was necessary. It was necessary for Jesus to suffer, it was necessary for Jesus to experience great pain in his body and mind. It was necessary for Jesus to lose in humiliation and defeat.
All this must be so.
For this is what it means for God to be one of us. This is what it means for the life of God to become intimate with, joined to, the pain of humanity. How could I give you life, Jesus asks, if I do not know all of your death?
All this must be so.
Some of the wisest words I remember from my downcast season after I’d left home were from an advisor to a student group I was part of.
I was telling this mentor about all that discouraged me, about my shattered college dreams, about my inner problems, about a break-up in a relationship I’d thought was meant to last. And what I said to her was that I was so disillusioned.
And I remember she said back to me something bracing that I absolutely was not expecting. She didn’t call me a fool, but she said to me: well, isn’t it better to live without illusions?
I think she said it kindly. She must have said other things to me that were empathetic and supportive, but the only thing I remember her saying is: wouldn’t you rather live without illusions?
If our Easter, springtime hope is that just around the corner is the pain-free, loss-free, never-again-downcast life of our dreams, then that hope will disappoint us because that hope is an illusion.
In our lives in this beautiful, broken world, things don’t go the way we want, the way they should. We will be downcast, but God will come looking for us there.
I was crushed to hear yesterday that one of the living people I most admire is dying. He’s 90 years old, so this is hardly unexpected. But it hits me with sadness, as he is one of our great lights.
I’m speaking of the French Canadian philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier. He had a new book out on his 90th birthday. It’s called We Need Each Other, and I’ve been reading and rereading it the past few months.
Vanier founded a series of Catholic communities in which people with profound mental and physical disabilities live side by side as friends with their caretakers. Vanier has himself lived in one of these communities for the past fifty or sixty years.
And while we were driving around rural Pennsylvania last week, Julianna and I were listening to On Being podcasts, including an interview with Jean Vanier called The Wisdom of Tenderness.
Vanier acknowledged that though he is a happy man, he too suffers. He talked about the challenges of his aging body, about what it’s like to be 90 years old and have seen so many people you love die. And there has been his community life for many decades. His life’s work has been to be with people in their pain – not trying to make it go away but being present and being a friend to others in their weakness, and in his weakness, to accept their friendship as well.
And this man, in his own way like Jesus – a friend of sinners, a man of sorrows – Vanier said: The big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be but in reality – to love reality and to discover that God is present in reality.
Reality is where God lives and works. Reality is the friend of God.
So it was with me in those years of my disillusionment. Humbled and broken a bit by walking away from some of my ideals, I learned how to pray and feel that a God of love is with me, listening to me, tender to me, loving the real me, even with all my weaknesses and flaws and unknowns.
I started to learn to make peace with my real life, to be friends with reality myself. I’m still learning these things, in some ways as profoundly now as since that time. As God keeps finding me whenever I’m downcast and start to walk away.
We weren’t there on that walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and tantalizingly, Luke tells us very little about what Jesus actually said.
But it seems that Jesus’ friends have a similar experience. God finds them while they’re walking away.
Jesus is present to them, alive as a teacher.
And Jesus shows them that he knows the meaning of suffering, just as Jesus knows his way to the other side.
Jesus said that all the suffering had to be. That’s why we don’t only go to resurrection and hope and flowers and victory on Easter. That’s why we remember the whole story. We have in front of the stage the story of Jesus’ suffering, captured by our pastor Kim in icons, as they were here for our beautiful Good Friday service she led.
We see the money table, that tells us Jesus was betrayed by his friend, that in Jesus’ age as in ours, there were people who loved money more than truth, who were loyal to their own ambition more than their friends.
We see the water and the towel, that tell us that God in Jesus serves his friends, and that Jesus didn’t strut around like a king or CEO or celebrity, but like a maid, or a mother, or a janitor – doing thankless, in the eyes of some undignified, work with great love.
We see the the bread and wine, that Jesus says were his body and blood – God made one with our death, touching us with God’s life.
We see thorns and nails, to tell us that Jesus is with us in empathy, with lived experience of all our many deaths and sorrows.
When disillusionment and bitter reality makes us downcast, Jesus finds us and says: take it easy, have peace. You don’t need to worry, and you don’t even need to look for me. Because I’ve been looking for you, even while you’ve been walking away.
Another person Julianna and I listened to while we drove around the countryside last week was Ruby Sales. She found herself walking away from God under very different circumstances.
Ruby Sales was a child activist in the civil rights movement. She was a pastor’s kid and she was there for dozens, maybe hundreds of prayer meetings and rallies as a kid in the 50s and 60s. When she was 17, she marched from Selma to Montgomery. Later that year, after a sit-in at an illegally segregated store, she was arrested and went to jail. After she got out, she was almost shot. All this before she turned 18.
This brave child, though, remembers losing her faith during these years. She was in a march, surrounded by police officers and horses, and she remembers praying to God that God would clear the way. She’d been raised in church on the story of the Exodus, when the people of God were threatened by their enemies, and God parted the sea so they could walk to safety, while their oppressors were routed. And surrounded by those horses and attackers, she prayed that God would do it again. Clear those horses, God – keep us safe!
And then nothing happened. She hid in fear, while the horses kept circling, and the crowds kept pressing in on them, and she said her last words she’d say to God for years – if you’re not going to help us, God, what good are you? Maybe you’re not even real! Ruby’s certain faith had failed her.
And on life went for a while, walking away, for many years.
Until one day, she was at her hairdresser’s, getting her hair cleaned, and the hairdresser’s daughter came back in after being out all night. She had sores on her body, and Ruby Sales could make some guesses about the kind of work this woman did, and the kind of life she’d been living.
And she looked this woman in the eye, and asked the first question that came to mind. She asked: Where does it hurt?
Where does it hurt?
And a whole story came pouring out, years and years of hurts that had got her to this day. And in these words: Where does it hurt? And in the reality that poured out afterwards, Ruby Sales felt her heart come to life – you could say her heart was on fire, with the presence of love and life she recognized again to be God with her.
And she thought: I want to do this with the rest of my life, to be in the presence of a loving God, asking people: Where does it hurt?
Jesus’ friends had this same experience.
Giving up, walking away, hearing Jesus say that it had to be so, they realized later that their hearts were on fire, as God found them and made meaning of their disappointment, captured them with fire and love as they were walking away.
They go from downcast to at peace, and from certain doom to a fiery hope.
When they finally recognize Jesus, though, when their hope really takes flight, isn’t just in the logical explanations of Jesus’ suffering. It’s in the recognition of his life.
Still not recognizing Jesus – perhaps he’s cloaked with a hood, more likely he looks and sounds different somehow in his resurrection body – they impel this teacher to stay for a meal. And when he breaks the break, they see him. They recognize Jesus from that last supper, when he broke bread and poured wine, and said all of my body is given for you. All of God’s life is given for you.
Later, after they run the 6 or 7 miles of so back up the mountain to Jerusalem – the first recorded 10K for all you runners out there – there is a bigger gathering of Jesus’ students, and they too recognize him in a sign of his love. They don’t believe it is Jesus, until they see his scarred hands and feet. For Jesus doesn’t rise with wounds – he has conquered death – but he does still bear his scars.
In touching Jesus’ scarred hands and feat, downcast becomes peace for the disciples, and certain doom is replaced by hope.
This is the stunning good news of Easter – that God is with us in all our reality, and that God is with us to to forge a new reality – Jesus alive after he has been killed, risen with great joy after he has suffered despair, daring us, teasing us to follow him where he has gone. Into endless, unlimited hope, joy, love, life, and power.
For some of us, this is enough. The declaration that Christ is risen stirs hope and joy in us that will carry us through any troubles.
But I love that there’s something in Luke’s account for the rest of us as well.
I love that even in the resurrection scene, even in Jesus’ reunion with the women and men who were his closest friends and followers, doubt remains.
Toward the end of this scene, Jesus asks his friends: why are you startled? What does doubt remain in your hearts?
After Jesus has explained his suffering, after Jesus has found his friends while they were walking away, after Jesus has lit their hearts on fire, broken bread before their eyes, and met with them to offer peace, they – like us – still doubt.
Could this be so? Is it too good, or to strange, to be true?
Their doubts are not replaced by certainty.
In their pessimism, in the sense of certain doom that hangs over Jesus’ friends, they see his scars of brokenness, they are touched by Jesus, who eats with them.
But their certain doom is not replaced by certain faith. It is replaced by hope.
We too live in times of certain doom. Privately, perhaps, some of us are sunnier optimists and some of us see fears and pain and bad outcomes looming larger in our lives and with our loved ones.
But I’m speaking of our collective culture and times now – how in our politics, and in our awareness of all manner of injustices, and in the state of our climate and the health of our earth, and so much more, a kind of doom hangs over us all. That the best times may have passed us by. That our debts and warming oceans make it a bad idea to raise children. That our children’s troubles make their futures look unsure.
Listen, I was on vacation much of this week. I wasn’t talking to as many people as normal, but I’ve had many conversations in the past week alone with people who’ve been gripped by fear of immanent tragedy, one way or another. Sometimes I have those conversations with myself.
Add to this that in these times of certain doom, we live in a post-religious culture, in which in many ways we are walking away from God. And those of us who are religious are seeing growing toxins in global religion that aren’t befitting of a good God.
And yet this Easter, I have for us all immeasurable, unbounded hope. Because hope in life, hope in love, hope in mercy, hope in justice doesn’t require certain faith that can replace our certain doom.
Hope only needs hope.
Hope that for humanity that has believed in God before our own species even began, that God has not given up on us. Perhaps God is doing something new.
Hope that a living Jesus can grow wisdom and compassion and courage in us, starting in ourselves and radiating outward from there.
Hope that as downcast as we may be in any given season, love always wins, life always wins.
Because love has won. Life has conquered death.
It has just begun. After Jesus’ friends go from downcast to peace, after they trade their certain doom for hope and presence to this day, Jesus says: now stay here. All that I’ve promised has come.
The Spirit of God will fill you and lead you into all love and truth.
And so it is with us.
This Easter, I won’t commend any particular practice or action to you other than this: that if you’re walking away, downcast, bearing any foreboding sense of doom, then simply keep an eye out for when God finds you. For when you sense peace, for when your heart is on fire again.
When that happens, it is the living Jesus with you, ready to give you hope. Don’t keep walking then, but wait, and see just how much hope, how much love, how much life a living God still has for you.