Rhythms: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Love: Faith has Muscle Memory
A Part of the Series:
Rhythms: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Love: Faith has Muscle Memory
Good morning, friends. My name is Morgan and I’m one of the pastors here. I’m so delighted to be with you this Sunday morning and kicking off our new sermon series called Rhythm’s Practices for a Jesus Centered Love. And as we get into this new series and start off this morning, we’re going to dove into a very familiar kind of post Easter story that you’ve probably heard before. It’s the story of an encounter that two disciples have on the road to a mass following the resurrection.
But they don’t know that yet. And rather than reading it from scripture, kind of in the familiar way that we know it, I’d like to offer it to you in an expanded kind of narrative form with more details and imagination than maybe you’ve experienced it before. So this is an excerpt from a book by Walter Wangerin, who’s an author that has kind of reimagined some of our scripture stories to bring them to life in a different way. So I know this is different, but I’d like to invite you to sit back and just listen for a few moments, grab your coffee, your breakfast, whatever you’ve got going on this morning, and join me in listening as I read through this story.
Maybe pay attention to what what catches you by surprise. What’s different than what you maybe assumed this story was about and know that this is one person’s imaginative interpretation about how things might have happened. On that third morning after Jesus’ devastating death, one of the disciples decided to go home, perhaps to stay there permanently, Cleopas told the others that he wanted to take his daughter out of harm’s way, which meant out of Jerusalem, away from the authorities that had arranged for Jesus’ death.
Besides, he argued what should keep him here anymore. The wheel was off the wagon, the axle broken. It was never going to move again. Jesus was gone. Life itself was ashes. Now, Cleopas said that he could taste the dry sort of futility in his mouth. So he took his daughter and left. Their house was in a emmaus about seven miles west of the city, and as they went, he found himself reviewing in his head all the things that had happened since they had come to Jerusalem.
Each detail, he recalled, only fueled his disappointment, his anger, his doubt. His daughter, 18 years old, walked quietly beside him, sometimes asking the question that might keep him talking and processing. She, too, had been a disciple of Jesus. It was her own decision. But part of that decision, he knew, was her desire to look after him. She was good at listening, Papa, she said. You’re more than sad, aren’t you?
You’re something else. He stuck out his bottom lip. I’m so angry I can hardly breathe. For a moment. There was hope and now there is nothing but darkness. She said, why, where does this anger come from? And you would have answered the question by naming a thousand injustices, but just then he realized there was a stranger pacing them, walking the same road in the same direction. As soon as Cleopas glanced at him, the strangers said, Friends, what are you talking about all at once?
His daughter stopped, put her head down and began to cry until that moment had not occurred to him that she would be as sorrowful as he. His defenses went up and he growled, What do you think we’re talking about? The stranger shrugged. I don’t know, he said. Are you the only visitor who doesn’t know the things that have happened in Jerusalem the last few days? Cleopas asked. What things, said the stranger, but his daughter jumped in and answered before he could concerning Jesus of Nazareth, she said gently, he was a prophet, mighty indeed and word before God and all the people.
But the chief priests and the rulers condemned him to death. They crucified him, she whispered. He died. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Cleopas hearing such despair in his young daughter, suddenly realized where his anger was coming from. He said this morning, a woman told us that the grave was empty and that Jesus was alive, Simon went and looked. They were right. The grave was empty. But that means absolutely nothing.
And he who caused us to hope has now become the death of my hope. Oh, you foolish fellow, the stranger said, slow to believe what the prophets have spoken. The insult landed like a fist to the gut, leaving Cleopas speechless, his daughter put her arms around him and earnestly asked, What did the Prophet say? That the Messiah had to suffer these things in order to reveal the love of God and the kingdom. The stranger said so while they continued walking toward Emmaus, the strange man spoke holding their attention, fascinating them both with the depth of his knowledge and causing in them a rebirth of wonder.
For beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted all the scriptures, the things concerning the Messiah, everything that had been foretold was fulfilled in Jesus. Except the absence Cleopas thought to himself, the messiah would never have left us alone like this. It was getting dark when they came to Emmaus as they approached their home, klop, his daughter took the strange man’s hand and said, the day is nearly over, sir. Stay with us.
Let us prepare a meal for you. The man had steadfast eyes, utterly unthreatening and unafraid. He smiled in agreement, Cleopas surprised himself by feeling some pleasure at the stranger’s acceptance of their hospitality when they sat down to eat. The visitor smiled and boldly took the role of the host. He took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them. In the instant, they touched the bread, their eyes were opened as if just waking up Cleopas recognized the features of the lowered his eyes like polished Amber the stranger had somehow been Jesus all along.
But in that same instant, Jesus somehow vanished. Cleopas and his daughter found themselves sitting alone at the table. Now, I know the woman spoke breathlessly, luminous with awe and wondered. Now I know why my heart was burning within me while he talked to us on the road. They rose up, both of them father and daughter, fresh with joy and hope, and regardless of the darkness outside, they went on their way to hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what had happened on the road and how the Lord was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
There are so many beautiful directions this story can take us. I’ve heard folks focus on the fact that God walks the road with us, whether we know it or not. I’ve heard others focus on how we need to pay attention to holy moments of heartburn that alert us to God’s presence or maybe to the work of love that is ours to do. I’ve heard about God meeting us in sacraments like communion and how suddenly the ordinary can become sacred and reveal to us that there’s a lot more going on than we ever could have imagined.
Maybe you never considered that one of the disciples on the road was likely an anonymous woman, and now you’re connecting to the story in a whole new way. This is what scripture does, it invites us to keep holding it up to the light and turning it like a multifaceted jewel, catching the light in a different way. Each time a powerful rising voice in theology, a man named Dante Stewart out of Emory University is one of those people helping me kind of turn that gem and see things in a different light.
He shared a post this past week on his Instagram that truly opened my eyes to a whole new angle on this story. And I want to share his words with you. I was reading this gospel story of disciples on the way to Emmaus, though they lost so much hope they didn’t lose what they learned of Jesus in welcoming the stranger. Though they did not recognize him, they still welcomed Jesus in their darkest moment. It is in the hospitality for strangers and their willingness to hold on to the pieces of faith they learn to embody, that they position themselves for divine possibilities, that might be one of the most important parts of the story.
They gave up on so much, but not on what they lived. I wonder for us today who in the same way are burdened by the weight of shattered dreams and hopes of life for bodies who were crucified, if this story can instruct us in telling and living better faith stories, even when we can’t articulate our faith, we still can embody it. There are so many principles to be gained from this narrative, one can see honesty, trust, failure, finding faith again, togetherness in pain and more.
But we must not miss how proud we should be of them and us for still opening their hearts when their hearts were broken. Sometimes people ask me to talk about my faith. I’m a pastor, after all, it is my job and sometimes I have to be totally honest with you. It’s really hard to find the words. There are times where I just cannot articulate my connection to God or love or the sacred. But what I’m appreciating more and more lately is that there is this muscle memory to the ways of Jesus.
As we follow in the way of embodied love, this here and now good news, this kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven, we go beyond a world of words and explanations and logical thought, and we find ourselves walking in the way of Jesus, which is the way of love. And that’s truly what the life of faith is about. It’s becoming a person who is more loving, more open, more like this Jesus, this impoverished, brown skinned Middle Eastern Jewish rabbi who was somehow mysteriously, fully human and fully God and who spent his childhood as an undocumented immigrant, worked as an adult, a backbreaking trade to just barely scrape by and became an enemy of the state because he fed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the marginalized, and insisted on the dignity of every person to the extent that the powers that be felt threatened by his very existence.
So our first practice as we step into these rhythms is is to explore what it means for us in real time, what it means to love the stranger, what it means to love our neighbor. And I know we’ve heard this a thousand times and it’s incredibly simple and incredibly complicated. It’s really easy and it’s one of the hardest things. And that’s the tension that we hold in this human life that we are called by Jesus into this practice, this embodiment that goes beyond words of welcoming the stranger, practicing radical hospitality, not just into our homes, because I know that’s complicated right now, but what does it look like to be a person whose presence is hospitable to be a person who is welcoming just in your very being?
So much so that anyone who comes across you knows their worth and their value and knows that they are loved and cherished. In these pandemic times, as more and more folks are getting vaccinated and things are maybe opening, but also our numbers aren’t super great right now, I know that my my attention keeps turning to what what will it look like when we’re, quote, back to normal? Right. When we get to dance again and not worry about awkward interactions with friends, about masks and hugs and do we sit outside and freeze or do we get to finally eat a meal inside with people we love?
I hope we don’t go back to normal. I saw a story recently of an eight year old boy with autism in the UK named Woody, and he has started somewhat famous platform for his witticisms, which are his his sayings during the pandemic. He and his dad have created these posters that say, among other things, I don’t want life to go back to normal. I want it to go back to better. And I joined Woody in that sentiment.
I don’t want things to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t great for everyone. Normal left some people so far behind and some people so unseen and let injustice just go by without even being noticed. Sometimes I don’t want to go back to that. I want to go back to better. We follow in the way of love when we view each day as a chance to go back to better, we can make it weird. We don’t have to go back to normal.
We should make it weird with love. I want to be just like weird with love. I want to make it awkward because I am just so committed to being a presence of radical hospitality and love of my neighbor, love of any stranger that crosses my path. Let’s make it weird in the way that we’re willing to radically love one another. There’s a story of Marcus Borg taking a trip to the historic location of the village of Emmaus once, but he arrived too late in the day to visit the place where the story is memorialized and a local passing by.
I noticed his face kind of crestfallen as he saw the hours that the site was open and that it was closed. And this local person gestured down the street and said, there’s another Emmaus that way, just head on down the road. There’s another one which prompted Marcus to just kind of be delighted by that and later reflect that a mass is everywhere. We have a chance to welcome the stranger in this radical way everywhere we go. The floor on which you stand the dirt outside your home, the roads on which you travel, there’s another Emmaus there.
And so, friends, I invite you this week to truly ask yourself, what is this practice look like for me? What is it going to look like for me to radically. Welcome the stranger, who can you surprise with love this week, who can you creatively show hospitality to? Who can you listen to or talk with or walk with? Who haven’t you heard from in a while? Who might need you to check on them? What organizations might need your help?
What neighbors are you called to love and walk with and welcome this week? I think with our friends, the disciples on the road to a mass, we step into faithfulness and following Jesus when we walk this road of not having all the answers. Someone is dealing with incredible heartbreak and grief and loss and anger, sometimes we feel hopeless. But in the midst of that, we can let the muscle memories of love and the muscle memory of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus, we can let that lead us into loving our neighbor and welcoming the stranger.
So, friends, may you go forth into this day knowing love and knowing that you have a chance to help us go back to better, not just normal by welcoming the stranger in the loving way of Jesus.