Here is the sermon from Sunday, April 30, 2017. The Gospel text was Luke 24: 13-35. Listen here:
On Sunday I was actually working from a full manuscript, which I don’t always do. Here is the manuscript I took into the pulpit–I may have re-ordered some things as I preached it.
Imagine that you have started trying to put together a large jigsaw puzzle at a friend’s house or at a recreation center.
You picked the puzzle out from a large assortment of puzzles and spread the pieces on a table. After putting together the obvious edge pieces, you immediately run into problems.
When you do find pieces that fit together, you can’t figure out how they relate to the picture on the lid of the box. The picture just won’t come together at all. You are getting increasingly frustrated. You have lots of pieces, and little islands of color, but no way of assembling a coherent picture out of them. You have what appear to be trees, but no trees are in the picture, which just shows a grassy lawn. The picture says you should have a puppy’s face, but all you can see are bits of a tiger-striped animal. You are very disappointed in this puzzle—it’s not fun at all.
Then the owner of the puzzle collection comes by and sees your dilemma. After looking at the bits you’ve managed to put together, he goes to the shelf of puzzles and comes back with a different box lid. Somehow the boxes got confused when they were last put away and you’ve been using the wrong picture to try to assemble yours.
Looking at this new picture is very different. Instead of a picture of puppies in a yard, you are actually assembling a scene of wild animals in a jungle. But now that you know that, you can see how the pieces fit together. What was a confusing and frustrating mess of puzzle pieces begins to come together into a clear design.
That is kind of like the situation the disciples in today’s story from Luke found themselves in on the afternoon of the first Easter. As they had come to know Jesus, they had begun to think that he might be the Messiah—but they had certain assumptions about what the Messiah was to look like and do, thanks to what they’d heard in their religious upbringing previously, and what they’d assumed when they’d heard and read Scripture, and what was going on in the world around them.
The picture they had of a Messiah was of a leader who would help unify the people of Israel to fight again the foreign oppressors, the Romans, and throw off their rule, so that God’s people would once again truly be in control of their own destiny and government. So they pictured the Messiah as a combination political and military leader, someone who was strong and focused on marshaling power and force to launch a fight and take over the country. They were very excited and hopeful that years of oppression were about to come to an end.
But when it had come to a conflict between Jesus and the Roman authorities, Jesus hadn’t fought back in any way, much less led his followers in a rebellion. Jesus had ended up detained,convicted of sedition, tortured and killed in a brutal public humiliating way. He certainly didn’t live up to the picture they had of the Messiah. And they were crushed, because they had hoped he was the one to overthrow the Romans and put the people of Israel back in charge.
So they find themselves on a 2-1/2 hour walk home from Jerusalem 3 days later, despondent, accompanied by this stranger who is evidently the only person who doesn’t know what had happened to Jesus, They tell him what happened, and even mention some of the crazy rumors some women in their circle had started that morning about Jesus’ body being missing from its tomb and that he was alive, resurrected from the dead.
And then the stranger begins to have a discussion with them about the bible—things it says about the Messiah that they hadn’t really paid attention to before. Using images from throughout what we would call the Old Testament, He begins to paint a picture of what the Messiah is to do, who he is to be, that is very different from the assumptions the disciples had made and the picture they’d had, the picture Jesus hadn’t lived up to. The stranger demonstrates that the Messiah is to be a suffering servant, not a conquering hero, someone who walks alongside God’s people and helps them actually become the people of compassion and mercy and justice that God has always wanted them to be.
They are so intrigued by what he’s saying that when when they reach their house in Emmaus at dusk they invite him to join them for dinner and to stay overnight, since it’s too late to keep on traveling. They continue the conversation as dinner is served. Then their guest does something very odd—instead of acting like the guest at their table, he suddenly takes the host’s role. He takes some bread in his scarred and wounded hands, and blesses it and breaks it. And in that moment, as his wounded hands offer them blessed and broken bread, all the puzzle pieces suddenly fit together.
They recognize that the teacher with the wounded hands offering them broken bread is actually Jesus—that he is alive, that he’s been resurrected as the women had said. And that he really is the Messiah, the suffering servant described in the Hebrew scriptures, who has overcome the forces of death and hate.
In the moment when they recognize him for who he truly is, he disappears—but now they know who he is, and they run out in to the dangerous night and hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others this amazing good news and rejoin the larger community. All the pieces have come together once they looked at them from the right perspective, and they want to share the beautiful new thing.
And the news travels from disciple to disciple, across miles and then across generations and so wehear their good news—that Jesus is the Messiah and is alive, and that God comes among us not as a conquering powerful ruler but as a compassionate servant, marked with the signs of suffering, a Messiah who walks with the outcast, feeds the hungry, shows mercy to the condemned, heals the sick, encourages the brokenhearted, and shows us, his followers, how to offer ourselves to others just as he offers himself. And that the forces which tried to kill him and overturn this rule of love and mercy have been shown to ultimately be defeated.
Yesterday all the vestry wardens, treasurers and clerks from all the parishes in the diocese—all the senior lay leaders in parishes–were invited to gather for a day of training in the nuts and bolts of parish leadership. The day began with remarks from Bishop Knisely about the role of vestry officers as spiritual leaders of their congregations.
He talked about how we often base our image of what our congregations should be—how we should be putting the pieces of ministry together, what a properly assembled and successful parish “puzzle” looks like — based on a picture from the 1950s. This was when there was an explosion of young families, when prosperity meant that people had time and energy and money to dedicate to community institutions, when civic involvement and religious affiliation were seen as socially positive things, and so churches grew rapidly, Sunday Schools were filled to capacity, and seemingly everyone belonged to a church. There was no need to go out into the community —the community came to the church.
The church had status and influence—theologians were on the cover of Time and Newsweek–and impressive size. The church’s energy could be focused on providing programs and fellowship for all the people inside the church walls. Each church could support multiple clergy and lots of people came forwards for ordination. But actually the 1950s and the 1960s were an exception in the history of this country and the history of the church. Statistically, historically, they were an atypical blip, not the norm, or an indicator of the future.
If we use the 1950s and early 1960s as the picture by which we measure what the church should look like, and try to recreate that, we will be trying to assemble a puzzle using the wrong box lid, the wrong picture, and we will not be successful. Just like the first disciples imagining a messiah who would be a powerful civic leader and ruler, we will be looking for the wrong thing.
Bishop Knisely told the parish wardens,
“Your job is *not* to focus on keeping the church open so it doesn’t close on your watch. Your job is to be a spiritual leader to help your congregation join God in the community doing the work God is already doing there.”
One of the ways we do that at Good Shepherd is through our support of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, which feeds thousands of people here in Pawtucket every year. We support them by monetary contributions from our Outreach funds and our Advent Fund and collections of tangible items, such as those we’ve gathered this Lent—and through our support of Episcopal Charities.
Episcopal Charities is the diocesan organization which helps us sharing our financial blessings with agencies doing the work of feeding and healing and clothing and loving those in need. Every year we are each invited to make a financial contribution to Episcopal Charities. The Episcopal Charities Fund then takes that money and gives it out as grants. One of the agencies which Charities supports is the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, and later in the service we will hear from Adrienne Marchetti who will tell us about their work.
The picture we should be using to assemble the puzzle of our parish ministries is a picture like to that which Jesus painted for Cleopas and his friend as they walked to Emmaus. A church which focuses on meeting the brokenhearted on their journey, a church which offers itself as a blessing, which feeds the hungry, shows compassion and mercy to the outcast, a church which is not ashamed of its scars and isn’t seeking prestige or status, but is rather seeking out the same people God seeks out—the lost, the sick, the outcast—and is joining with God in the work of healing and feeding and loving. That is the picture we aspire to recreate.
Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and shared it, and his disciples’ eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
O God, open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Christ in all his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.