I spent a few hours this week sending mail to people, not something I normally do. Here’s why.
It started with an 11-year old named Emerson.
Emerson loves to send letters. They usually include news and updates, lots of questions, jokes, artwork – inside and on the outside of the envelope, and talk about Taylor Swift.
And a couple of months ago, Emerson decided to write a note to her mail carrier, who’s been sending her letters and delivering the responses she gets. She wrote: I’m Emerson. You may know me as the person that lives here that writes a lot of letters & decorates the envelopes. Wel, I wanted to thank you for taking my letters and delivering them. You are very important to me. I make people happy with my letters, but you do too. The reason you are very important in my life is because I don’t have a phone so how else am I supposed to stay in touch with my friends? You make it possible!”
The next day, Em got two letters back – one from the mail carrier and one from his supervisor. And the following day, she wrote them both back. And then a couple of weeks later, two boxes of mail came for Em.
See, the mail carrier’s supervisor had shared her letter with the whole group of USPS workers in her region, and lots of people wrote to Em. Because she had been vulnerable in her letters, they were too. There were jokes and little gifts, and talk about their family and lives, and confessions of love for Taylor Swift from from grown men and women. And on it went; Things like:
“I work alone in a small rural post office….”
“Not everyone realizes how hard we work….”
“I can’t tell you how much it means to read your letter…”
“I have a son in Kuwait. If you have a second, could you send him a letter too. He’s all alone…”
And on and on it went, and on and on it’s still going. This circle of seeing and knowing, of thanking and recognizing, of finding new connections in a lonely world. All inside stamped, addressed, marker-art covered envelopes.
I read this story, shared with me on twitter by another pastor I’m friends with. And my heart lit up. What I mean by that is I was thankful and inspired and happy and sad and had new ideas for how I want to live in the world and what kind of world I want to see into being – all at once.
And so last Wednesday, a few days later, I sent some letters. It was surprisingly slow going. So much slower than email, to think of who to write to, and to find the words, and write them out by hand, and find addresses and envelopes and stamps and all that.
But it was my way of not letting go of what had happened to me when I read that story, my way of honoring that my heart was on fire, and that I had new life in that moment.
In my teaching the past couple of months, I’ve been again and again asking: Where is God?
Because we’re all in our own ways wondering that a lot these days. Where is God?
Well, in the resurrection accounts – the stories of Jesus come back to life in the scriptures – we find God in so many signs of life that are places we find God still.
And this week, I’m giving what I think will be the first of a two-part sermon on signs of life as we find God in fire. This one on how we find God whenever our hearts are on fire.
Let me read today’s scripture. And you can look at this picture of two people walking at dawn, and imagine this story.
Luke 24:13-35 (NRSV)
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
There’s a movement to this story.
It starts where we’ve been collectively, with obvious sadness and loss. They grieve the death of Jesus, and the loss of hope. We grieve our losses too. We grieve the sick and the dying. We grieve the tens of millions of lost jobs. We grieve the lost graduations and parties, the lost freedom, the lost control. This week, we grieve racial injustice again. And we, like the two in this passage, sense the anxiety of an unknown future. We had expectations for what this year would be like, and all we know now is that we have to let them go, and aren’t quite sure yet what to hold in their place.
Next the story touches on the burden of the unexpected. Tucked into what they say to the stranger that walks with them is a possibility they were ready for, from people they wouldn’t listen to. There’s this report that Jesus is alive, but it came from the women of their group – news too good for them to believe, from people they weren’t used to listening to.
I wonder what good news is here for us that we weren’t expecting, living in people we won’t listen to. God so often speaks truth not from the loudest or the supposedly most qualified people, but from people and places that have been disrespected, even silenced. Who are you listening to, to hear God’s truth?
Next the stranger fills out this gospel, this good news. It’s the gospel as apocalyptic, which is a fancy way of saying that God’s good news rarely affirms our sense of the world as it is. God reveals. God’s good news shows us something truer and deeper and more beautiful and more terrifying than what we’ve yet seen. Jesus reframes for them what “God with us” means, Jesus shows them that suffering has always been part of glory. Jesus helps them see differently.
We’ll come back to this.
Then these friends have the basic wisdom to stay with this moment, and in staying with the moment, their eyes are opened. The sign of life Jesus has for them is theirs to see, and they too in turn become a sign of life with a message of hope for others.
And it all happened while they were walking. Jesus showed up and walked with them, as God is prone to with us. The speed of God is 3 miles per hour, the speed of walking. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama coined this phrase – the 3-mile-per-hour God. So much truth in this. That God moves at our pace, more than what we imagine to be a god’s pace. That we think better when we walk, literally. That God is so often with us on the way to places, not once we get there. So much more here.
But looking back, at the center of this encounter, these two unnamed disciples recognize that good news, the apocalyptic, the unveiling or revelation that they couldn’t yet see came to them as Jesus taught them.
And the sign of life for them, the sign it was true, was their burning hearts.
Hearts on fire. What does this phrase mean to you? How or when have you experienced your heart on fire?
For words like heart, it helps to look at the Hebrew imagination of the Old Testament, which continues in a different language in the New. The heart is the seat of human emotion, for sure, but also the center of cognition and imagination. It is an integrated center of what we might call mind and heart. Thinking and emotion, which are never separate.
Here the two people who walk with Jesus think new thoughts and feel new feelings, because they see new truth!
Perhaps your heart has been on fire as you’ve stared at the waves or taken in the sights from a mountaintop. You feel the rush of beauty, wordless, arrested with awe, your sense of being so small and yet of having a place in this world.
Perhaps your heart has been on fire as you’ve been in love – with a lover you want to know as close and as constant as possible, or with a child you’d step in front of a truck for you feel so much fierce, protective love, or with an elder or mentor you respect and appreciate.
I’ve seen hearts on fire in students who have these light-dawning revelations about themselves or their world, I’ve had that happen to me as I’ve sat under good teachers.
Perhaps you’ve felt a fire of anger at the injustice of the world as it is, as you ask: how long? And why not now? And how will I be part of the change to the world as it should be?
Hearts come on fire with Jesus as he teaches them the powerful, world upturning truth of God in the scriptures, and as he breaks bread with them, reenacting for the first time the communion meal of the Last Supper he’d shared with them just days ago.
This is why our worship, and the worship of most Jesus-communities historically, has centered around the teaching of scripture and the taking of communion. Because we know these are so often places where Jesus sets our hearts on fire.
But they’re not the only places. Whenever we become profoundly grateful – to God, to others, to land, to friends, to ancestors, to anyone or thing from which good comes – we move toward hearts on fire.
Whenever truth is revealed, whenever conviction is stirred of the deep truth of how things are, the deep promise of how things should and will be, our hearts are on fire.
Hearts go on fire when we seen new and important possibilities, when we offer or receive love, when we find courage for what’s right, when we see and admire or even make what’s beautiful.
And when your heart is on fire, that just may be a sign that the risen Jesus is with you.
Obviously, not all moments of human enthusiasm and passion are signs of God. People have become excited about some weird and even straight up evil ideas that they thought were true. The human mind and heart – our imaginations and intellect and emotions – can deceive. Absolutely. Which is why we discern truth, and don’t just take everything at face value. Why we practice, in community, the meeting of the real, risen Jesus in the teaching of scripture, and in the taking of communion.
But today, I encourage you, I exhort you really to notice when and where your heart goes on fire, in way we’re talking about it today.
Pay attention to this. Stay with it. Don’t let it go. Be curious. Ask what the moment has to teach you. And respond. See what it means to carry it forward into your own sign of life and message of hope.
For me, this year, I was convinced that it was to be a year in my life of more radical kinship, more radical hospitality, more radical solidarity, the discovery of a more deeply, relational way of living. And then came social distancing.
I don’t know what that all means still, but I know that in a story of 11-year old Emerson reading and writing letters, in that giving and receiving of connection, my heart was on fire. That this year of discovery continues for me. So I’m sticking with that for a while, and seeing how I’ll find God there.
When or where has your heart been on fire? When or where have your mind, your emotions, your imagination been lit up with goodness, truth, or beauty? God is alive there.